Back to School After a Cancer Diagnosis

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When 8-year-old Luke Gworek can’t go to school because he’s sick or getting leukemia treatments, a plush monkey named Steve takes Luke’s place in a second-grade classroom at Huth Elementary School in Grand Island, NY. Steve can be mischie- vous, because — well, he’s a monkey. When Luke missed school recently, his teacher, Amy McMann, sent him photos of Steve swinging from the ceiling and sleeping in the recycling bin. The photos are good for a laugh, but they also serve another important purpose: “Especially on days when Luke is in treatment, he can still feel connected to us, and we to him,” McMann says.

School is the center of a child’s social world. When cancer pulls a child out of that world — frequently, and sometimes for long periods — it’s easy to become disconnected from classmates, adding another layer of sadness and stress. “Their friends are going on with life and doing things without them,” says RPCI medical social worker Kristen Fix, LMSW. Young patients may also face taunts, stares, and whispers after returning to school bald or with a chemo port sticking out of their chest.

That’s where RPCI’s School Outreach Program can help. The program eases the return to the classroom with a frank discussion about cancer, delivered at the child’s school by an RPCI nurse and either Fix or pediatric medical psychologist Brandee Aquilino, PsyD. Every family of a pediatric patient is invited to participate; about 75 percent say yes.

Based on the family’s preference, RPCI staff speak with teachers only, the entire student body, or just the child’s class, says Dr. Aquilino. “Some of the little kids like us to come into the classroom and sit on the rug, and talk with the kindergarten teacher and all their friends about why they’re not going to have any hair, what their medications are like, and how everyone can make school a normal place for the [child] to be.”

“Being normal is the kid’s biggest hope,” notes Fix. “They are the same child they were before they were diagnosed.”

Luke’s mom, Danielle Gworek, says her family “utilized the re- source last year, when Luke was first diagnosed, and again this year in second grade, because he moved schools. It helped the other students understand that he is a normal kid, but fighting can- cer, and that he has been through a lot.”

Amy McMann says the RPCI team also explained how to protect Luke from germs: “We do a lot of hand-washing and frequent desk-washing, and the children want to help. It’s incredible.” Having all the facts in place about the diagnosis and treatment helps both Luke and his classmates feel more comfortable, so it’s easier to “keep our focus on learning,” McMann adds. At least until Steve acts up again.

Steve the Monkey came from Monkey in My Chair, a nonprofit organization that helps young cancer patients stay connected to their preschool or elementary school classmates. For details, visit monkeyinmychair.org

RPCI’s School Outreach Program, funded by Carly’s Club, is a service of the Department of Pediatrics. To hear more, visit RoswellPark.org/cancertalk/201209 and scroll down to “Psychosocial Impact of Pediatric Cancers.”