Confronting the big C

Laura Rentoul explores the importance of discussing cancer openly and ensuring support is in place

Research shows that by 2020, almost half of the population will get cancer at some point in their lives. This reality means that educational settings will increasingly be supporting children affected by cancer. 

The elephant in the room 

Despite the prevalence of cancer and its impact, too often cancer is a taboo subject and understandably discussing issues openly can be difficult. 

Children may be facing cancer or it may be someone close to them that has been affected. Whilst trying to protect children from difficult news is natural, avoiding discussions about what’s happening may make them feel more vulnerable.

It‘s important to give children the chance to talk about their fears and worries alongside opportunities to express themselves in other ways such as through play, art or movement. Educational practitioners play an important role here. 


Children’s understanding and emotional reactions may vary. Babies and toddlers won’t fully understand what’s happening but may have a slight awareness. Children from the age of six will be able to understand fuller explanations of cancer and its effects. Teenagers usually understand what’s going on in terms of the cancer, but can be reluctant to talk about it. They may find it hard to show how they feel. 

When cancer is terminal it can be much harder to talk about but it’s important to communicate what is happening and what will happen so children have a better understanding when loved ones pass away. 

Helping families 

If a child in your setting is affected by cancer, you may notice that they’re experiencing several different emotional reactions. 

They can show their feelings by being angry or by misbehaving. You may come across behaviours such as problems with eating, sleeping or socialising. They may seem sad and withdrawn, or have physical symptoms like headaches or tummy aches. 

It’s helpful to speak to parents or family members about how cancer is affecting them and if they are happy for you to communicate with their child about it. Reassure parents and family members that you will keep in regular contact with regards to their child. 

Young carers 

In the UK there are around 177,000 children and young people aged 12-18, who provide some level of unpaid care to another family member with a disability or long-term illness, such as cancer. Without the right support this can have a big impact on their physical and mental wellbeing, including school life and relationships. 

Signs can include difficulty concentrating, frequent lateness or absences and affected school work. Educational practitioners can help identify young carers and signpost them to the support and resources available. 

Fundraise for Macmillan 

Join Macmillan Cancer Support’s fundraising initiative Dress Up and Dance on Friday 19 June. Most importantly, as a school you’ll have done something amazing for children and families affected by cancer. Register today for your free kit.

Laura Rentoul is a Teenage and Young Persons Information Nurse Specialist for Macmillan Cancer Support


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