Cancer in High School Series (Part 4): How a High School Can Rally Together to Make a Difference for Classmates

“My school has been so supportive and helpful and I couldn’t be more thankful for that! A friend of mine hosted a swab drive with DKMS and they had a great turnout. I am so grateful for everyone that swabbed [to determine whether they are a stem cell donor match]! The most challenging thing is that nobody, including your closest friends, will ever understand what you’re going through or how you feel but I appreciate the ones that truly try” (McNamara 2017).

There are a few steps you need to take to become the best supporter you can be and contribute to a greater movement at your school to make a positive difference for classmates in your community. Before proceeding with any plans for a specific classmate with cancer, the first and most important step is ensuring that you are honoring their support needs and privacy wishes. Not everyone wants their cancer diagnosis to be public knowledge at school. Always ask first. For more information about how to navigate this difficult time, check out our supporter roadmap.

cancer in high school

Creating a Safe Space

After understanding the classmate’s support and privacy wishes, you can move forward confident that the support you organize aligns with these needs. One of the most important things to create positive change within a school community is providing a safe space for the students to educate themselves through respectful conversation and questions. As noted above, discussing the cancer diagnosis at the discretion of the family and student affected will help the community adjust to the news, become better informed, and become better supporters.

“Establish if and how the family would like information about the student’s diagnosis and treatment to be shared with teachers and the rest of the school community. You might suggest confidentially informing a small team… who will respect the family’s privacy while coordinating care and support for the student and any siblings at the school. It may also be helpful to develop a plan in case students learn about a classmate’s diagnosis from the student or from social media, and need support in managing their reaction” (Cancervic 2018).

cancer in high school

Get your own questions answered

Before you can help contribute to making a difference in your community, you need to ensure you are actively getting your own questions answered and have taken the time to gather your thoughts and fully understand them. As a student, ways you can do personal research and become better adjusted to the news.

  • Making the most of authoritative online resources
  • Talking with trusted friends, family, counselors or advisors about your thoughts and feelings
  • Journaling to write down any questions and how you are feeling


Have a trusted point person who communicates with the family about what they feel is best to create this safe space and to what extent of information they want to be shared. As appropriate, schools can use resources to distribute information and help start conversations that will help the community understand the situation and work together to make a difference.

Means to distribute resources can include:

  • The school website
  • A school newsletter
  • An email or physical letter mailed out to students
  • School presentations hosted by trusted faculty or a clinical nurse consultant
  • Advisory sessions
  • Conversation circles within each classroom

Fundraising and Events

Being present and supportive does not require doing big things to make a big difference. However, there are times when classmates are inspired to work together to host a fundraiser or event that will lift the spirits of the classmate with cancer, help their family, or increase general awareness about a cause they feel passionate about.

“We wanted to do something to help raise awareness to women who could easily let small symptoms go unchecked. The climb took a lot of training and mental strength but it was such an adventure and completely worth it to raise the money for Cancer Research UK.

Coordinate with your school’s leadership team and relevant staff members to host fundraising or awareness events on your campus. It is an excellent way to get the community involved in supporting a cause and, overall, creating positive change. Listed below are potential event ideas your school can participate in. 

Rally Your Support Squad

Support young adults with cancer by throwing a dance party, having a backyard bbq, putting on a volleyball tournament, etc. The possibilities are endless. Whether you want to honor a friend, recognize a survivor, or inspire the community, there are many options, so get creative and be authentic to the person and the cause. Contact us if you are interested in hosting a b-present fundraiser, and we will help you get the party started!

American Cancer Society Relay For Life 

“The Relay For Life movement is dedicated to helping communities attack cancer. Through funds donated, time given, or awareness raised, our communities are teaming up – virtually or in-person – to make a difference. When we rally together in the fight against cancer, we can accomplish anything.”

The Relay For Life event helps “develop leadership and community service by encouraging students to lead and support their peers and teachers and can make a big impact on your campus and your community.”

Support Cancer Awareness Months

There are a variety of national cancer awareness months that improve awareness and support, fund research, and amplify the gaps and work still to be done. Choose a cause you are passionate about and one that feels authentic to your experience and goals. Rally community support by…

  • Hosting a sporting event or another type of event while raising money through concession stands and donations
  • Selling merch with proceeds going directly toward supporting cancer awareness
  • Hosting a 5k run with participants asking friends and family as sponsors to donate per mile or upon completion of the run
  • Start an online or in-person fundraiser

cancer in high school

Planning the Event 

Define the goal

  • Is there a certain patient or family you hope to financially and emotionally support?
  • Is there a certain organization whose mission closely aligns with yours that you would like to organize a fundraiser for?
  • Are you hoping to provide better education to those in your community about a focus topic?

Write out your specific goals so you can clearly communicate them to your audience and those helping you plan the event. Once your campaign focus is identified, you can more clearly visualize what you want the event to accomplish.

Potential cancer awareness campaign focuses include:

  • Providing support for survivors
  • Specific Cancer Awareness
  • Early indicators for cancer


Plan the logistics

  • Setting a date. When do you want this event to take place? How long do you want the campaign to last?
  • Finding a location. Where will this event be most suitable? What place will help you gain the most attraction and participation?
  • Talking with the relevant people. Will this event take place on or off your school’s campus? What administrative work needs to be done to host the event? 

Detail all the logistics while monitoring things that may pose as obstacles when the date for the event comes closer. Make sure to talk to relevant administrators to file any necessary paperwork and to make sure your event follows your school’s guidelines.  


cancer in high school

Find supporters to help plan and run the event

You can’t do everything on your own or even with a very small group. Appoint volunteers and delegate tasks to make sure progress happens on all fronts. Work toward devising plans to advertise your event. You want to reach the largest audience you can to help achieve the goals you set in the beginning. For advertising, consider some of the following options:

  • Reaching out to local businesses within your community to create “goody bags” you can auction off as part of the event
  • Advertising to not only students at your school but other schools in the area: elementary, middle, and high school, depending on the goals of the event


As we continue to find ways we can be the best supporters possible and how to communicate these ways to more people in the community to promote a collective effort, we also need to remember how to give support to supportive classmates and family members during and after treatment. How can we be respectful to those affected by the diagnosis? How can we help support the patient’s close support system while being sensitive to the issue? The next and final segment of the Cancer in High School series will cover how to support the supportive classmate during and after treatment.

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Cancer in High School Series (Part 3): Supporting a Classmate After Treatment

If you have a friend or classmate who has been away for a long time and is ready to return back to school, keep in mind that their life is slowly returning to a “new normal.” However, transitioning back to school post-treatment can be a difficult adjustment for teen survivors. Be ready to assist them both physically and emotionally, be aware of the changes and effects of their treatment, and be sure to handle your own emotions in the process. 

After an extended period away, cancer patients often think about missed academic and social activities. Some common questions include:

  • How will my classmates react to my return?
  • How will they react to my physical changes in appearance??
  • What did I miss out on?
  • What academic work do I have to make up?
  • Will I be able to catch up?

As you think about how to support a classmate post-treatment, it is important to remember that things may feel different, but you can help support a seamless transition back to a “new normal.” 

Returning to Campus

Before their first day back on campus, try to recognize and understand your classmate’s feelings about returning to school. Returning to school can be unsettling and even scary having missed a significant portion of school due to treatment. By planning ahead, you can determine how the student wants to be supported.. Is it a grand welcome with posters, cheering from various classmates, and balloons? Or is it a quiet “welcome back” from close peers, making the return as undisclosed as possible? Focusing attention on the fact that they had cancer can often do more harm than good as they try to return to a normal existence on campus. The last thing they usually want is to be constantly referred to as “the one that had cancer”. By talking to close friends, siblings, and your classmate’s parents, you can plan a welcome back that fits your classmate’s wants and desires.

Understanding the Situation

Post-treatment physical and emotional changes can include hair loss, self-consciousness, anxiety, depression, physical fatigue, problems with concentration and comprehension, and sensitivity. It helps to be informed about what they have had to go through during cancer so you can be better prepared and more empathetic towards their situation. For more information, check out our first blog in this series, Overview of the Teen Cancer Experience, our Cancer 101: Understanding the Road Ahead, and our supporter roadmap web page to learn more and find answers to other questions you might have about your classmate’s experience. Life by Ella, streaming on Apple TV does an excellent job portraying the challenges Ella, a 13-year-old cancer survivor, experiences with her family and classmates after returning to school. 

How to Help the Returning Classmate Cope with Anxiety

Returning to school is a big step for someone who has gone through the grueling process of cancer and its treatment. Some concerns the student may have include:


  • Being in the spotlight and the center of attention at school. The student may be worried about how people around them will react. Refer back to the “Coming Back to Campus” section to see how you can best support them.  


  • Fitting in with classmates and returning to a sense of belonging. The student may be worried about having trouble fitting back into the school because of changes in their physical appearance and mental health. Help the student feel as comfortable as possible and be mindful of topics they may feel sensitive about, including hair loss, weight loss, and other physical changes.


  • Feeling excluded. Your classmate’s extended absence likely means they have missed out on big milestones and events that occurred while they were away. When they return, be sure to let them know that you missed having them around. Fill them in on any changes or events that will help them feel “caught up.” Include them in conversations and group activities, and help them adjust, during this challenging transition phase. 


  • Dealing with bullying or teasing from other students. Although schools typically have anti-bullying policies, it, unfortunately, still happens. Your classmate may be afraid of the negative, targeted attention they receive. As a supporter, do your best to intervene when you see bullying or harassment. Talk to a trusted school administrator for help if it is a recurring thing, you see taking place. Always try to educate and point out when someone is doing something wrong. 


Support During School

My identity had been reduced to simply being “the girl with cancer,” without everyone having the facts to inform their bewildered stares. Suddenly, classmates who I’d scarcely spoken to were holding my hand with teary eyes and my crush from Spanish class was asking me if my cancer was terminal, mid-verb conjugation. I’d scurry through the halls, trying to escape the eyes of my peers.” —BELLA ARNOLD


As supporters, friends, and peers, it is important to be mindful of our returning classmate’s support needs but continue seeing them as a person and not equating them to with cancer. Think about how close you are with the student; if you do not feel as close with them, try to be sensitive to the situation. If necessary, take the time beforehand to ask questions to trusted adults and teachers to ensure a safe environment for the student’s return. The student may come back with visible or emotional changes; be mentally ready for these changes to ensure a welcoming return. 

“My school has been so supportive and helpful, and I couldn’t be more thankful for that! A friend of mine hosted a swab drive with DKMS and they had a great turnout. I am so grateful for everyone that swabbed [to determine whether they are a stem cell donor match]! The most challenging thing is that nobody, including your closest friends, will ever understand what you’re going through or how you feel but I appreciate the ones that truly try.” —AUTUMN COLE


What Should I Avoid Doing?

Sometimes things slip out, or curiosity gets the best of us. Here are some things you should avoid bringing up in conversation with your returning classmate unless the student engages in that conversation.

  • “I know someone who went through a similar situation.” Avoid bringing up other stories, as everyone has a different experience with cancer and faces different challenges. Sometimes, this statement can seem like you are comparing their story to someone else’s and are dismissive of their own experience. 
  • “I know exactly how you feel/what you are going through.” Everyone feels differently about the situations they face. Even if you went through a significant illness or injury, the experience is never the same; show empathy. 
  • “You are so brave for coming to school.” Putting labels on them, while well intentioned, can keep them from being their authentic selves and cause them to feel isolated. For example, telling them they are so brave can keep them from showing anything other than a brave face, even when they may feel otherwise inside.
  • “Your appearance has changed.” or “You look different.” Comments like these can make the student even more self-conscious and apprehensive about their appearance. Even if they do look different, drawing attention to it is not helpful. 
  • “Everything will be okay.” Although the first impression of this statement seems to be positive, talking about the condition or state they are in and making positive assurances when you don’t have control over these promises is dismissive of their feelings. The student may fear the return of their cancer and statements like this one can cause anxiety over this fear.


In general, stay authentic to your relationship and the topics you would naturally discuss as part of that relationship. Follow their lead on topics specific to their cancer or changes in appearance and mood. If they want to talk about it, they will take the lead. When they do, don’t change the subject. Be a good listener and provide a safe and non-judgmental space. If they don’t want to talk about it, find other common ground to connect on.

In addition to being supportive on an individual level, students and schools can rally together to create positive change for classmates in their communities. Questions like, “How can I do more to raise awareness?” and “What events can help educate our community about cancer and support community members?” will be answered in our next segment of the Cancer in High School series. We will also cover how high school students can rally together to make a difference for teens in their community. 

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Cancer in High School Series (Part 2): Supporting a Classmate During Treatment

“Over the years, I’ve answered, ‘What’s the hardest part about having cancer as a teenager?’ in the same way: feeling forgotten.”

Treating cancer is a difficult process and should certainly not be faced alone. Yet, many high school students diagnosed with cancer feel isolated from those around them immediately following the diagnosis and face increased separation during the treatment process. Preserving a sense of normalcy and helping a diagnosed classmate stay connected with their community is one of the best ways you can be there for them.

Support comes in many forms—emotional, verbal, and physical. You can stay connected online, plan in-person visits, write cards, give gifts, deliver their homework, etc. While all great efforts, support heavily depends on the patient and should be tailored to their specific needs and wants. To do so, you must first understand the process of giving and managing effective support.

Understanding a Classmate’s Situation

Receiving the news that your classmate has been diagnosed with cancer is shocking. It can stimulate so many different feelings—confusion, discomfort, and anxiousness, to name a few. 

And many questions immediately come to mind…

  • How should I react? 
  • What is okay to say and what isn’t? 
  • What can I do to be there for them and/or their family? 


While these immediate questions and feelings might feel overwhelming, they are normal and vital to address and reflect on. Use these feelings to educate yourself on what your classmate is going through. Find someone to talk to, like a parent, teacher, or counselor. Being aware of what your classmate is and will experience during this challenging time allows you to meet them where they are and provide the best support possible. For example, suppose you know your classmate has an upcoming surgery. In that case, you can start rallying their support network to take turns planning virtual or in-person hangouts, taking notes for them during class in their absence, or fulfilling needed wishlist items. Equally important is ensuring that the support offered is aligned with how they want to be supported and feels authentic.

Preparing for Change

During cancer treatment, they may experience physical and emotional changes, including but not limited to hair loss, weight gain or loss, mobility limits, endurance limits, “chemo brain” (challenges with concentration and comprehension), neuropathy, etc. These temporary changes may make them feel more self-conscious and sensitive to their physical and social environment.

“A big struggle for me was my appearance. I used to have the longest brown hair, and now, here I was with the shortest pixie cut I’d ever seen. And I HATED it. Oh, my word, it was the absolute worst!”

Preparing for these changes can help you maintain your relationship and minimize changes to how you perceive or treat them. It will create a more comfortable environment once you become familiar with the changes and know what to expect. Remind yourself that these changes are associated with cancer or treatment, and do not change your relationship or the person you knew before.  

Emotional Support: Holding Conversations with a Classmate

One of the most significant ways to be there for your classmate is to have normal conversations with them. Whether it be about a recent news headline, classmate updates, or celebrity gossip, offering a diversion from cancer is always welcome, as it has quickly taken over their entire life. As a friend and classmate, you should focus your time spent together on staying connected and building your relationship, just as you did before their diagnosis. Your goal is to preserve a sense of normalcy.

“Stay connected with friends through social media and texts, inviting friends to the hospital during visiting hours and playing video games or watching movies when at home.”

“For times when you can’t see friends or family you can stay connected through social media, email, blogs and phone or video calls.”

Equally important is following their lead when it comes to important topics. As important as it is to preserve normalcy and have lighter conversations, do not be ignorant of cancer. If the topic comes up, it means they want to talk about it. Be a good listener. Friends and peers who go through this often like to share their feelings and talk about the overall situation. This is a good outlet to help you understand what’s going on at a deeper level and get a better sense of their wants and needs. 

“We relied on each other for comfort and understood what each was going through. We were able to let out frustration when times were hard or when we didn’t feel our best.”

Patience is key when communicating with a classmate who is diagnosed. Since they are going through so many changes in such a short amount of time, it may take a while for them to wrap their head around the fact that their world was completely flipped upside down. Treatment often causes a decrease in energy and mood swings, so don’t be overwhelmed if your classmate struggles to feel happy and enthusiastic. With cancer, every day is different and brings a new set of challenges. Do not back away from the situation and leave them to deal with it all alone. Keep showing up to avoid stimulating feelings of isolation and distance. 

General Tips to Support a Classmate

While you continue to talk and meet with your classmate going through treatment, here are some general things to keep in mind during your interactions:

  • Take the initiative to make plans and be flexible with them. Keep inviting them even if they decline sometimes. It is important to feel included and not forgotten.
  • Stay positive and friendly, even when the same feelings are not reciprocated. Remember, they are going through a lot and it is not personal.
  • Understand their perspective. Try to imagine what it must feel like (without saying “I know how you feel”) 
  • Hold space for uncomfortable topics.
  • Treat them the same, don’t view them differently because they have cancer.
  • Always be ready to help: mentally, physically, and emotionally. 
  • Self care is also important – take care of yourself and find your own outlets to destress, talk and process. You can’t be present for them if you are tired or preoccupied.
  • If they have siblings going to the same school, be sure to check in with them too. Remember cancer affects the whole family, and siblings can feel even more isolated and abandoned.


“It’s never easy dealing with an illness like this, but I’m blessed to have the great support system that I do. I don’t know what I would do without my family being here for me.” —Autumn Cole

Continue being there for them. Show up and don’t distance yourself from the relationship or situation just because it may be a little uncomfortable.

Visual and Practical Support

Visual and practical support is equally important to emotional support. As supporters, we should not only help facilitate emotions and stay verbally connected with them but assist them in daily tasks, getting things they may need, etc

Be a Liaison

Offer to help communicate to all necessary people, whether it is with other classmates or teachers. Offer to send messages on a regular and recurrent basis. Take the initiative to curate a list of contact information to help you relay important news

Schoolwork and Education

“When I was having chemo, the school didn’t [realize] how sick I was going to get and they kept sending me assessment tasks. After a while, they stopped doing that and just asked how I was now and then.”

Keeping up with homework is difficult for many high schoolers going through an intensive treatment program. They may tire more quickly, both mentally and physically, which makes it hard to keep up with class assignments; this is something many fail to recognize. Helping to offer them balance school and treatment, from taking notes and tutoring to something as simple as passing along assignments, can be very appreciated. 

Care Packages

Mixing creativity with the needs and wants of your classmate can be a fun project to show support. Consult with their parents about foods and drinks they currently enjoy, include some personal care items like scented hand sanitizer and fuzzy socks, and add a few enjoyable activities that can be done to occupy time alone like small puzzles, books, or a journal. Put it all together in a decorated box and deliver it to them. When you take the time to bring them meaningful items that correlate with their interest in a nicely-wrapped package, it shows how much you care and that you are there for them – it builds a sense of trust and connection.  

Miscellaneous Gifts

Some ideas to show support include

  • Pajamas
  • A thoughtful, interactive card
  • Souvenirs 
  • Pictures 
  • Self-care items
  • Games or activities

Tips for Maintaining Contact with a Classmate

Sometimes it’s hard to find time to connect with your classmate because of the conflicts between their treatment schedule and personal health and yours. That is the beauty of virtual communication. Take the time to send a text message, mail a gift, or leave a voicemail. Contact their parents for their schedule and spend a few minutes finding a time that works for both of you. Even the smallest gestures show you care.

A strong support system is vital during the treatment process. Supporters must try to understand the situation, the person, and their diagnosis to the best of their ability and act accordingly to maintain connection and be there for them when needed. 

And as we begin to think about post-treatment support and lifestyle changes, more questions arise on how to help create a smooth transition into their “new normal.” 

  • How do I continue to support the student after treatment? 
  • What questions should I be asking? 
  • What support should I be giving? 
  • How do I preserve the feeling of “normal”? 
  • What things should I avoid saying/doing? 


The next segment of the Cancer in High School series will cover how to support a student after the treatment process: the do’s and don’ts of support.

For more tips on how to show support to a classmate, visit the following resources:

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The Sibling Dynamic During Cancer

“Sisters and brothers are the truest, purest forms of love, family and friendship, knowing when to hold you and when to challenge you, but always being a part of you.” –Carol Ann Albright Eastman

For young adults diagnosed with cancer, life is upended, and dreams are put on hold at a time when adult life feels as though it is just getting started. Cancer also has an ability to extend beyond the patient to include the siblings and family as the entire family unit shifts into survival mode, with all attention focused on the young adult with cancer. 

Siblings, in particular, often feel the weight of a cancer diagnosis and feel the need to mask their emotions in order to be strong for their family. They may feel overwhelmed as their own social and emotional needs are sidelined to take on additional chores and responsibilities at home and in school. Anxiety, anger, isolation, abandonment, resentment, and hopelessness are just some of the feelings that may arise as the dynamic of relationships change throughout a cancer diagnosis and treatment. 

The sibling dynamics of a diagnosis 

Julianna was a 16-year-old just starting to get glimpses of freedom when her world stopped on a dime due to her cancer diagnosis. It seemed like her newfound freedom was immediately recanted as she began to feel smothered by her well-intentioned parents and friends.  

“Once I was diagnosed with cancer, I immediately lost all independence,” Julianna said, “I went from being a teenager who was starting to get all this independence to being treated like a baby. It was a really hard adjustment. I also was really craving that time with people my age, my friends, being at school – I lost a lot of time with those people.” 

Julianna is a twin, and her diagnosis completely turned her sister Alessandra’s life upside down too. 

“Where Julie feels that she was smothered, I feel the opposite. I feel I was pushed to be extra independent. We were going through this life change where we’re getting ready for senior year, getting ready to go to college. Julie talked about being excited to drive, and I ended up being the one driving but mostly to and from the hospital for doctor’s appointments. I became her transportation as opposed to me driving to a friend’s place.” stated Alessandra. 

Both Julianna and Alessandra expressed feeling isolated after the diagnosis. 

“You can have all the support, but if it’s not the people that you want [peers], you still feel very isolated.” said Julianna. 

When youth can’t verbalize their feelings, they begin to feel isolated.

Julianna and Alessandra are not alone in their feeling of being isolated. For the Wagner family, Judy’s son Jackson was diagnosed at age 16 As a parent to an adolescent or young adult that was diagnosed with cancer, she knew that her children were not getting the support they BOTH needed from her.

When Jackson was diagnosed a switch flipped. “I needed to be by my child 24/7. This is what I needed to do as a mom.” Judy stated. While longing to be with her newly diagnosed child, she felt the guilt of not being there for her younger daughter, Hannah.

“I was so torn being there with Jackson and not being with Hannah because she was suffering too. I knew where I needed to be, and that was in the hospital. I remember feeling so not able to be there for both my kids, and that tore at my heart like you can’t believe.”

A cancer diagnosis changes sibling dynamics.

An unequal split of time, attention, and energy leads to bitterness and ultimately strain to a relationship—this was the case for twins Julianna and Alessandra. 

“My perspective was never asked about. It’s always, you know, how’s your sister, how’s Julie doing, how is Julie doing with her diagnosis, etc. I kind of built a little bit of resentment or bitterness towards Julie.” shared Alessandra.

“Our parents tried to treat us equally most of the time, and then she started not being treated equally, and I could get away with a lot more because I was sick. If I was cranky, or rude, or cussed, or said no, it was acceptable.” replied Julianna.

“Even though there was a lot of tension and we argued a lot more during that time, we did get closer. She would come after school to spend time with me, and I felt like my sister was the only person who treated me normal. I appreciated that she provided me with some sense of normalcy, especially when a diagnosis kind of changes everything in your life.” said Julianna. 

How can teens get support after a sibling’s cancer diagnosis?

While a cancer diagnosis completely alters the family’s way of life, everyone in the family (especially siblings) needs a safe space where they can feel heard and supported. For siblings, it can be easy to diminish your feelings and challenges, but advocating for yourself when you need a break, help, or support will help you keep a sense of self and allow you to b-present for your sibling when they need you most.

Our b-there program provides post-diagnosis support for you as a sibling or family member. Take a look at our resources to take care of yourself first so you can provide your loved one with the support they need. In many cases, therapy can be a great way for all family members to express their lived experience and have an outlet to feel seen. 

Cancer’s impact extends throughout and beyond the family, and finding ways to express your feelings and emotions is key to maintaining the relationship dynamics between your siblings during this time. 

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Cancer in High School (Part 1): Overview of the Teen Cancer Experience

Receiving a cancer diagnosis is devastating at any age, but receiving a diagnosis in high school is particularly disruptive and comes with its own challenging obstacles. High school is a unique time in a teen’s life filled with memorable experiences and milestones that define the path they take and who they will be in the future: a development of social and emotional attributes, career building, etc. This includes gaining independence, building new relationships, and finding their way in social situations.

Milestones like:

  • Learning to drive
  • Getting a job
  • Preparing for and applying for college or career
  • Attending school dances
  • Social clubs and activities


And even sharing the classroom experience feeds life lessons, develops personal character, how to build trust, and how to process challenging emotional situations with the support of their peers. With a cancer diagnosis, all of these life-shaping experiences are disrupted as the teen diagnosed is removed from school during treatment. Social connection is vital for this age group. Yet, it is often completely broken after cancer and extremely difficult to pick up the pieces and return to “normal” after treatment is over.

As a community, we have the opportunity to improve the teen cancer experience. In this five-part Cancer in High School blog series, we will explore cancer’s impact on the high school experience and what we can do to make it better. Part one provides an overview of cancer in high school and what the experience looks like for the teens diagnosed. Future blogs will cover topics that include how to support a classmate (or student) during treatment, the do’s and don’ts after treatment is over, and how to support the close friends or siblings of the teen diagnosed. We will also discuss how schools can rally and organize to make a positive difference for other teens struggling with cancer and social isolation in their community.

When an unexpected cancer diagnosis enters a student’s life, it immediately impacts every aspect of their life and reroutes their path to now account for cancer. Understanding the experience of a high school student dealing with cancer can help us show empathy and be better supporters.

Cancer in High School: The Statistics

“When I was diagnosed, I was genuinely terrified. I didn’t know anyone else with cancer and was treated alongside young children and older adults.” Diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma at age 15, this survivor’s experience is common amongst teens in this country. 

Nearly 89,500 Adolescent and Young Adults (AYAs) between the ages of 15-39 are diagnosed with cancer in the United States each year.



This population is the most underserved by age, and treatment is often split between pediatric and adult hospitals. “I was treated at a world-class institution with some of the most brilliant and caring doctors and nurses in the world, but AYA-specific care was the missing puzzle piece for me.” It is well documented that AYAs fall through the gaps in the hospital system. Within this underserved age group, approximately 7 percent (5,000-6,000) are teens ages 15-19.  

Cancer types found in teens 15-19 include a mix of those that develop in children and adults. The most common types seen in this age group are different than in older or younger adults, including lymphoma, leukemia, thyroid, brain and spinal cord cancers, testicular, sarcoma, melanoma, and ovarian cancer.

The Diagnosis

Finding cancer in adolescents is often delayed and in a more advanced stage than seen in other age groups. There are various reasons why cancer diagnosis is delayed, including symptoms or discomfort that are ignored or having similar early symptoms for other more common illnesses. Even when seen by a doctor, it is more likely that their symptoms like pain or fatigue will be attributed to something other than cancer. 

However, once the cancer is recognized, the general sentiment of receiving the news includes shock and unexpectedness, followed by feelings of isolation and lonelinessIn Ruby’s story, she shared that her cancer treatment required surgery and extensive chemotherapy and radiation treatments concurrent with school. 

“After surgery to remove the [tumor], I found out my treatment wouldn’t end there. Six weeks later, I started radiotherapy. I kept on going to school and had the treatment in the afternoons. Even though it made me nauseous, I pushed through. Then I had four rounds of high-dose chemotherapy and was off school from November to March.” (Cancer Council NSW 2021).

Following a diagnosis comes informing school personnel, activities, and relevant people. It is important for the student to have the opportunity to maintain a comfortable lifestyle while adapting to sudden change, especially being in high school—a time dedicated to preparing for their transition into adulthood. Making plans for the future must now account for cancer, including but not limited to treatment plans, doctor visits, and mental and physical health. 

While the communication aspect is being delivered, what is not well recognized is the immediacy of what follows. Allie Newman was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma at the age of sixteen in 2011. She learned that her treatments would begin the following morning, which gave her a mere 10 hours to understand her complicated and life-changing situation. Being instantly told what she would be able to participate in and what she would have to leave, what she could and could not eat, and the sudden increase in doctor visits gave her little time to adapt to this new lifestyle, something many teens with cancer have to face. 

Cancer in High School: The Experience

Every experience with cancer is different; each individual attends to a unique set of positives, negatives, and hardships. When someone receives a cancer diagnosis in high school, their experience depends on their support system, individual character, and how well treatment is balanced from their social, school, and family life. 

School Life

Many students who were able to share their stories recalled positive experiences when it came to maintaining school requirements; school administrators and faculty took great care to accommodate their needs. Jeremy, who received his diagnosis during his junior year of high school, shared his positive experience with his school. He was provided flexible options to stay on track with his schoolwork, and the school emphasized that his health was the main priority. Ruby also showed her appreciation for having a designated teacher to communicate with for school needs. 

Schools will generally appoint a teacher or administrator to regulate the student’s progress and serve as a liaison between the student and the school. This helps create a healthy balance of school during treatment; the student can efficiently communicate any needs, meet their academic expectations, and have access to a more flexible schedule.

One common theme throughout high school students dealing with cancer is declining academic capabilities. Ruby explained needing to lower her academic performance standards from the level she used to achieve post-chemotherapy. She also mentioned starting tutoring and how, to catch up, she focused on learning what was seen as the most important topics because of just how much she missed. Jeremy shared a similar experience where he only learned key concepts instead of the entire curriculum; he targeted achieving the minimum requirements to complete year 11. 

“I still struggled watching my friends play volleyball without me.” Because of the physical tolls treatment has on your body, patients are often restrained from participating in physically-demanding activities. Many high schoolers have to drop sports and find other ways to be involved in the activities they love. “Since I couldn’t be out there doing everything I wanted to do, I found ways to participate. Instead of being on the volleyball court, I took photos for the team. And I felt included!”

Isolation and Normalcy 

“I sort of remember my first week at the children’s hospital where I received all my treatments. I sat up in my hospital bed, hair hadn’t even started to fall out yet from the chemo, and I asked my oncologist, “How long will it take me to feel normal again?”

Another common theme many high school students with cancer face is losing connections with themselves and those around them. Maintaining relationships during treatment and returning to normalcy once treatment is over proves to be one of the biggest challenges. Some teens returned to a spike of enthusiasm and consideration from their friends and peers to help them transition back to the school environment. Yet, as time progresses, those same friends aren’t there to stick around even when help and support is still needed.  

(Picture credit: Sana Moezzi)

“I lost a lot in the first year after I was officially discharged for my cancer treatment. I lost my partner, I lost some friends, I lost my mind several times … But what’s important to me now is that when I look back at myself, I see this severely injured being who maybe just didn’t have the right support around them at the time.” 

From the beginning of my journey, I was alone and isolated. I felt my teenage years were being cut short and I was utterly out of place in high school. Surgery caused me to miss school trips, hospital stays prevented me from attending school, homecoming fair, and dances. In three months, I attended only 14 days of school. And for a girl like me, who loves learning and reading, doesn’t mind homework, and secretly smiles when a presentation is assigned, I witnessed a huge passion dissipate. I grew distant from my friends and struggled to stay in the loop of it all. Many days I struggled with depression, not seeing a single teenager in treatment, convinced I was alone. I was lost and separated amid the jumble of small kids in pediatrics.”

Teens who experience the side effects of cancer treatment face feelings of discomfort when going back to what they used to define as normal. “Everyone looked really shocked. People stared a lot, especially the younger students. I hated it.” Cancer treatments cause visible changes to your body, common ones being weight and hair loss from chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Because their bodies undergo intense treatment, they become much weaker.

Going from resting and internally fighting to daily physical movement is a significant change; some use mobility aids like wheelchairs to assist them as they are unable to move on their own. These physical changes prompt many unwanted questions and shocking looks from those around the teen, which adds to these feelings of discomfort and isolation. 

“I felt like the only teen in the world with cancer.” —Lauren Telesz

The entire process of dealing with cancer makes high schoolers who are diagnosed feel more alone. They miss out on memorable high school experiences, attending school dances, dressing up for school spirit weeks, and connecting with students through group projects and clubs. And the effects don’t stop once treatment is over. The recovery process is longer than you think. Not only do they need to make up for the time lost during treatments, but they return to a “new normal” where cancer becomes part of their story. 

So how do we as a community of friends, classmates, teachers, and counselors help reduce the sense of isolation and abandonment that often occurs with a high school cancer diagnosis? How do we preserve their sense of normalcy without focusing only on their cancer and the temporary physical and emotional changes that come with it? How do we stay connected and also keep our own mental health in check during that process? Stay tuned for our next installment of Cancer in High School to learn how we can make a difference and overcome the stigma that drives a wedge between us and the teens who need our support.

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