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New resources from the cancer agency score high marks for helping students with blood cancer return to school

Leaf Worsley and her son, Mars, struggled with his return to school, having missed years of learning and experiencing a lack of resources to help him with the transition.BOBBIE-JO BODDEN PHOTOGRAPHY

Their fight against cancer may be done, but for many children, their return to school marks the start of another struggle – how to catch up on school work and make up for time spent in a hospital instead of a classroom.

For most children and their families, there’s support available during the treatment phase, but there are fewer resources to help navigate life after treatment. However, the emotional and developmental side effects are often overlooked as kids try to figure out how to get their lives back on track. The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada has tools that can help students with blood cancer, like Mars Worsley.

In 2013, he was six years old and in the middle of Grade 1 when he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL), a cancer of the bone marrow and blood. Only a few months before, his mother, Leaf, started treatment for breast cancer. Together, they travelled from their home in Bancroft, Ont., to the Peterborough Regional Health Centre or to SickKids Hospital in Toronto for treatment almost monthly. At one point, the family (mom, dad and Mars’s two younger brothers) lived at Ronald McDonald House for 10 months while Mars received radiation and chemotherapy.

His treatments lasted 3½ years, but his mother says it took another year to regain any sense of normalcy. He was too tired to attend school full time, so initially he went just half days. To ensure Mars would be safe at school, a nurse talked to his teachers and they in turn encouraged students to be diligent about hand washing to prevent the spread of infection, which would have had serious implications for Mars’s weakened immune system.

“When they talk about chemo side effects, they prepare you for everything,” Leaf says. “Nurses know exactly what to do about staying physically healthy through school, but nobody prepped us for what happens next.”

What she didn’t expect was how frustrating going back to school would be for her son. She was unprepared for the heartbreak she felt looking at Mars’s report card. Mars was well enough to attend Grade 5 full time, but academically, he was still at a Grade 3 level, having missed out on several years of learning core skills.

Leaf also went back to school, but to teach high school math and science. Her experience was different. As a teacher, she had the benefit of a transition plan and resources to help her return to work. Unfortunately, her son did not have such tools available to him for his return to school.

“I feel like Mars has been made to suffer multiple times. First, it was leukemia. Now, it’s getting caught up, and it’s not working,” she says. As a teacher herself, Leaf understands that there aren’t enough education assistants or resources to provide one-on-one attention. But she says grouping children who have missed years of education in with kids of their own age who haven’t does not help.

“These children need specific help,” she says, “but there’s a worry [among school administrators] that it singles out a student. Instead, Mars feels singled out when he gets one out of 20 on a spelling test. He deserves more.”

The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society of Canada agrees. As the only voluntary health agency dedicated to blood cancers in the country, it has helped thousands of patients and families since it began in 1955. Stories like Mars’s inspired it to introduce new online resources for students, parents and teachers that include downloadable booklets, fact sheets and suggested resources like the website

Teachers can learn how to support students dealing with cancer, before and after treatment. They can learn how to speak to their classmates about it and how to keep in touch with a student as he or she is away getting treatment. That could include video chats with fellow classmates, sending cards and drawings, and organizing a school awareness campaign on leukemia. It also addresses the emotional, cognitive, social and physical challenges faced once a young cancer patient returns to school.

Leaf and her son didn’t have these resources available to them back then, which underscores the importance of spreading the word. “They are totally useful,” Leaf says. “Teachers can feel overwhelmed and it’s difficult to know what are the needs of students who have had leukemia. Resources like this will help them adjust. Kids need a transition plan too.”

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