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Lessons Learned from Sending a Child on Chemotherapy to School that Can Benefit Parents Now

Five Tips to Keep in Mind When Sending Your Child to School this Fall.

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Photo credit: Michael Blum

Five Tips to Keep in Mind when Sending Your Child to School this Fall.

The country is consumed about how and whether to send children back to school this Fall. What will school look like? Is it safe to send them back even though they need the socialization? How can we keep them protected? This landscape is new for most parents, but not for parents of children with life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer.

I was faced with the same questions when my 8-year-old son, Christopher, was being treated for leukemia. After the initial three months of treatment, he was allowed to return to school. In some ways, it felt like we were sending him into a lion’s den as he had a suppressed immune system, and schools are known for being Petri dishes. But he needed the social interaction of school for his mental health and his overall wellbeing.

So below are my lessons learned and five tips for parents to keep in mind when sending their child to school this Fall:

1.It takes enormous trust. We already entrust teachers and administrators when we send our children to school during normal circumstances. But the bar has been raised here. Now we are also needing to trust the other parents that they won’t send their child to school when they feel unwell. With every social activity Christopher engaged in, including storytime at the library, we had to give notes to all of the parents asking them to alert us within 96 hours should their child get chickenpox which could be deadly to a child on chemo. As a hyper-vigilant mom, it was very hard for me to give this control away. But wrapping him in a bubble for two-and-half-years (the length of treatment) wasn’t the best option for him.

2.You can’t control everything as hard as that is to accept. As parents, we want to protect our children from everything. I met with my son’s teachers and the principal before he started school and all of the parents were aware that Christopher was on chemotherapy. Thankfully they went the extra mile to keep their child home when they were sick, but sometimes they didn’t know until their child was in school. Even though I knew this could happen, I still allowed him to attend. He needed to be with his friends and classmates and have as much of a normal childhood as possible. Not being able to control everything was hard for me, but life is full of unknowns. I never imagined my oldest child would get cancer. 

3. Get comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. We need to be willing to voice our needs and concerns and ask for things such as for someone to wear a mask or keep socially distant even if it’s uncomfortable. When I asked parents to please alert me, if their child got chickenpox, some argued that it wasn’t possible for their child to get it because they’d been vaccinated. Even though I was uncomfortable with confrontation, I had to inform them that their children could still get a mild case, and if so, I needed a phone call.

4.Consider what is best for your child and your family. This is a personal decision and we need to remove judgment from the equation. What is best for one family may not be right for another. Going to school was important for Christopher’s mental wellbeing. But when his immune system was particularly vulnerable, we had to keep him at home. Parents may find that they too need to keep their child at home sometimes, even when their child would rather be in school, as was the case with my son. It’s a delicate balance keeping one’s child safe while protecting their mental health.

5. Don’t lose yourself in your worry. Make time for you. My son once asked me what I did all day when he and his brother were at school. I told him, “Mom things like grocery shopping and running errands.” His response to me was “Mom your life is really boring. You need to do fun things.” And I didn’t even tell him that I spent hours on the computer researching healthy foods for strengthening his immune system. However, he was right. It wasn’t good for my immune system or my parenting to be stressed out. To get out of our heads, we need to make time for things we enjoy.

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