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Back-to-school: When Mom or Dad has cancer

By Marc Silver, Special to CNN
updated 7:17 AM EDT, Tue August 20, 2013
Maya Silver was 15 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wrote a book with her dad, Marc, about that time.
Maya Silver was 15 when her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She wrote a book with her dad, Marc, about that time.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • An estimated 1 million teenagers have a parent who is a cancer survivor
  • It's a good idea to make the school aware of the situation at home, Marc Silver says
  • Set up clear lines of communication and boundaries for what can and cannot be shared
  • Keep an eye on your teen's academic progress during this difficult period

Editor's note: Marc Silver is an editor at National Geographic magazine and co-author, with his daughter, Maya, of "My Parent Has Cancer and It Really Sucks: Real-Life Advice from Real-Life Teens." He is also the author of "Breast Cancer Husband."

(CNN) -- Kaitlin raised her hand to answer her teacher's question in class.

"Oh, how's your mom doing?" the teacher asked, aware that Kaitlin's mother was battling cancer.

Kaitlin was furious. She did not want to deliver a medical bulletin in front of all her classmates. She wanted to answer the teacher's question.

Kaitlin, 15, is a member of a club that none of her peers wants to belong to: teens who are coping with a parent's cancer.

It's a pretty big group. An estimated 1 million teenagers have a parent who is a cancer survivor. These teens don't want to be known as "the kid whose parent has cancer." But suddenly, things are very different.

It's too much to expect teens to navigate this difficult period alone, but parents need a strategy to help. These tips, drawn from a book I wrote with my daughter, can be helpful for any family in which a parent is dealing with a long-term illness.

Step One: Tell the school

In general, it's a good idea to bring your child's school into the loop. Cancer means changes at home that may go on for months, including new responsibilities and worries.

That doesn't mean the news has to be broadcast over the school's PA system. (And believe it or not, that has happened.)

The first thing to do is talk it over with your teen, who may (or may not) agree that informing the school is wise. If your teen isn't crazy about the idea, give him or her some insight into your rationale: "If you're feeling distracted or upset one day, or if your grades are slipping, the school will understand why and cut you some slack," you could say. "And if you feel the need to talk, there will be someone at school who knows what's going on."

Contacting all your student's teachers is probably unnecessary. Start with one person: the school social worker; a guidance counselor; a trusted teacher or coach. That person can, with your permission and guidance, pass the word to other teachers. You can also craft an e-mail to share so you have control over what information is given out.

Bailee, now 19, recalls how much she benefited from having a school counselor to confide in when her mom was being treated for cancer. "He let me talk. He became one of my best friends, my biggest rock," she remembers of those tense months.

Step two: Set ground rules

A teacher's well-meaning questions about a parent's health should be kept to private conversation. Make that perfectly clear!

You might want to set up specific lines of communication; teachers could let your child's counselor know if they see anything that causes concern -- behavior in class, academic issues, etc. The counselor might then set up a weekly or as-needed check-in with parents to report any news.

Step three: Come up with helpful strategies

Let's say things aren't going well at home, and your teen is having a bad day at school. Some schools will offer a few "get-out-of-class" passes, good for a 10- or 15-minute break, or maybe even the rest of the period.

Or perhaps your kid craves a more subtle way to seek relief. The student might come up with a signal for teachers that means: "I'm having a rough moment. I don't need to leave class, but please don't call on me right now." It can be as simple as catching the teacher's eye and shaking their head.

Step four: Keep an eye on academics

Work is piled on in middle school and high school. Some teens handle it all, even when a parent is coping with cancer. They might even try to overachieve, distracting themselves from their home situation by pouring themselves into homework and extracurricular activities.

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But others may struggle. "When my dad was diagnosed, my grades went in the toilet," says 16-year-old Reilly.

Asking for later deadlines or makeup tests might be helpful once or twice. But extending deadlines has a downside, notes social worker Seth Berkowitz. Your kid might never catch up with the next round of work.

Shorter assignments are another option to propose if the home front is hectic. Is it OK to do just half the assigned math problems? Can a research project be five pages instead of 10?

An empathetic counselor might convey this message to teachers: "Please boil down assignments to those that are most essential for content knowledge. Please be considerate of the student and family at this time. We will keep you posted."

Step five: Remind the school -- it's not all about cancer

It's important to stress to the school that not every problem your child has will be cancer-related.

Take, for example, 16-year-old Lyndsey, whose mom is being treated for cancer. One day she forgot to do homework for one subject. The teacher pulled Lyndsey aside and asked if she had time for homework. "He tried to make It all about my mom having cancer," Lyndsey says, "and I was freaking out because I really just forgot to do it."

What Lyndsey wanted -- and what parents need to say to teachers and administrators -- is that many teens just want to be treated the same way they did before their mom or dad was diagnosed with cancer.

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