I know how lucky we are that Felix is starting secondary school today. Childhood Cancer is rare but for whatever reason, Felix is one in 300 children to be diagnosed. If there is a silver lining, yes there is always a silver lining, Felix happened upon a common type of cancer with established protocols and medical trials looking for kinder treatments.
Felix is a lucky one. I know a number of families who will not be able to post their back to school photo this year. I know families who would give anything to label a uniform. pack a lunch box and give their child a kiss as they leave the house for the new school year. For those families, my heart is with you. My heart is always with you.
Today my heart will also be in my throat as I think of my middle child starting a new chapter. When the register is taken this morning, nobody will really have any idea about what he has been through in the last 18 months. Felix doesn’t want them to. He is starting secondary school in long-term maintenance, still taking daily chemotherapy with weekly blood tests and fortnightly reviews. However, his sights are on playing rugby and using Bunsen burners and that’s exactly how it should be!
For any teacher who has a child in their new class who has survived a cancer diagnosis, they have endured more physical, emotional and social challenges than you could imagine. This is an insight into what a child and their family might have gone through if there has been a cancer diagnosis. It is by no means a comprehensive list and only relates to my child who, at the age of 11, is nearly half way through his 3-year treatment for Acute Lymphoblastic Leukaemia. In my child’s short life, he has experienced the following:
- Unplanned and forced separation from one/both parents and siblings
- Pain following surgery and procedures
- A portacath inserted into the side of his chest
- Anxiety relating to medical procedures and appointments
- Extreme fatigue, tiredness and sickness because of the chemotherapy
- Significantly reduced mobility
- Emotional and mood changes because of medication
- Significant changes in appearance leading to poor self-image and low-confidence
- Emergency admissions to hospital because of infection
- Restricted and controlled diet
- Loss of dignity and control
- Isolation from family and peers
- Over-exposure to clinical and medical environments
- Extensive adult company
- Regular temperature checks and medication at home
- Fear and distrust of adults
- Resignation and disappointment from missing social events/holidays/sporting events
Whilst these consequences relate to a child with cancer, they also significantly affect the siblings. If you have a child in your class whose sibling has had a cancer diagnosis, please bear the above in mind. They may appear well-adjusted and be coping well but they have witnessed their much-loved brother or sister experience possibly all of the above and more. They may have watched their sibling sleep for days because of the chemotherapy, they may have seen their hair fall out or they may have run for the sick bowl to try to save his/her’s dignity. No matter what their age they have probably seen their parents cry for the first time, felt frustration when their sibling gets another gift/treat and felt disappointment when their sibling and parents have to spend another night at the hospital. There is the uncertainty of who will collect them from school, cancelled plans because of infection risk or guilt as they carry on with their everyday life. Despite this, they do not say a word as they know their brother/sister’s life is far tougher; the siblings are quite often the unsung, silent heroes.
As for the parents, they have tried to keep their family glued together and ticking along whilst all of the above is happening. So, if they appear distracted or apathetic, any of the above could be at the forefront of their mind. At some point their child has been so sick they have been too scared to look to the future. Their priorities have probably changed since their child was diagnosed; life looks a bit different now. Yes, they are going to be over-protective and insistent that you know about their child’s illness because they have suffered so much already. They will want to protect their offspring; this is the primary function of a parent.
Despite all of the above, Felix wants to be normal. He craves to be a normal 11-year-old kid doing everything that an eleven-year-old kid does. We try our very best to make sure that he fully engages with life, has the opportunity to fail and take risks. It’s tough because I would truly love to wrap him in cotton wool but I know I can’t. I can’t wait for him to grasp the opportunities and experiences available to him at Secondary School with two hands and love every moment.
So good luck to all the kids and teachers for the new academic year. This week will be a furore of highlighting, organising and planning on both sides of the desk. I really can’t wait to watch and support all three kids through the next year of their education.
So to the teachers, staff and kids alike – here’s to a cracking 2017/18, it’s going to be awesome! And to Felix – good luck today, you’ll smash it!