Cancer in children: The unseen impact of cancer on education

As per a Lancet study, India alone witnesses more than 50,000 cases of cancer in children under 19 years of age every year.

Cancer in children: The unseen impact of cancer on education
Cancer and its treatment in itself is a cause of stress and fear for patients and their families.

Cancer in children and education: Cancer is one of the most dangerous diseases known to man, and it is the second leading cause of death across the world. Medical science is working to improve the survival rates because of cancer and it has yielded some results, but the risk is still too high. The situation becomes even more grim when it comes to cancer in children, because it brings in the aspect of compromised education. As per a research paper titled “Epidemiology of childhood cancer in India” published in the Indian Journal of Cancer in 2009, 1.6 to 4.8% of all cancer in India was seen in children aged below 15 years, translating to an incidence of 38 to 124 per million children per year, and this is based on the cases that are detected. Apart from this, as per a Lancet study, India alone witnesses more than 50,000 cases of cancer in children under 19 years of age every year.

Cancer requires rigorous treatment and it causes immense pain. Moreover, there are chances of the disease not being cured if it is at an advanced stage and that also causes fear in the minds of the patient and the family. Amid this, 16-year-old Priti Nag not only beat cancer, but also cleared her Class 10 SSC boards with flying colours, scoring a commendable 97.60% even as she was staying at the St. Jude India ChildCare Centre in Mumbai and completing her treatment for cancer.

Her story is praiseworthy and inspiring – and also rare.

Priti was staying at St. Judes, which is a centre where children undergoing cancer treatment can stay with their parents and it also tries to support them in their education while the treatment is on.

However, there are many more children in India whose education suffers because of this disease.

Talking to Financial Express Online’s Bulbul Dhawan, Dr Suhas Agre, Medical Oncologist, ACI Cumballa Hill Hospital, said that cancer could impact education due to several reasons. “There could be absenteeism in school due to the treatment, and doctor visits, follow-ups and long-term stays at the hospital could even lead to there being gaps in the education of the child. Apart from this, chemotherapy could lead to short-term effects like fever and infection,” he said.

The education system is not quite flexible to these issues, as can be understood from the fact that less than a decade ago, organisations in India were fighting to have cancer included in the list of disabilities. Apart from that, the high competition makes it harder for students to cope with the curriculum they miss due to their frequent hospital visits. Gaps in education are also not well-accepted in the highly competitive job market.

There are several educational challenges that these children face. Children have to often travel great distances, thousands of kms at times, to reach hospitals and cancer treatment facilities. This means that if these patients do reach the hospital or treatment facility, they would need to abandon their education to some extent, either having to switch to some other educational institution near the treatment facility or having to travel back and forth in the middle of treatment.

The former can be an issue because amid treatment, adapting to a new educational institution is not easy. Moreover, since the hospitals and facilities are located in major cities and that too, far away, language barriers can also be a major obstacle.

Apart from this, Anil Nair, CEO, St. Jude India ChildCare Centres, also listed some challenges that these children face during their treatment when it comes to education. “Since cancer treatment can go on for anywhere between 6 months to 2 years, most children end up taking a break from their schools during this time. The positive aspect is that schools are usually helpful and understand that the child may return to treatment more than once. There is also the issue that since many of these children are from small towns and villages with poor school infrastructure, they end up travelling great distances to receive decent education. This leads to mental and physical fatigue causing them to give less time to study and play. Apart from this, many children lack resources. This has increased especially, during the current pandemic when most of the activities are conducted online. If survivors have siblings, the same resources get divided among them which further adversely affects their education,” the CEO said.

But that is not all. A more worrisome aspect is the long-term impact of cancer on education. If a child has to undergo radiation therapy as part of their treatment and they are administered a higher dose, it can negatively impact the cognitive ability of the child, which means that it can have long-lasting effects on the learning and understanding abilities of the child. Though this is a lesser side effect now, it is still a possibility.

Not only that but if a child had to get prosthetics as part of their treatment, then rehabilitation for that also requires them to stay away from school for a longer duration.

But cancer is not simple. It is a complex disease that has numerous side effects, and that is why awareness around cancer and its seriousness is needed. However, that is not the case, especially among children.

“There is some amount of social stigma attached to cancer and can lead to psychological stress for the children and their families. Often, lack of awareness hampers children’s chances of getting back to school; especially, when schools decline readmission due to being pressurised by parents of other children. Some of the children also face discrimination and are bullied for wearing masks, loss of hair, and treatment-induced disabilities. In addition to this, it is difficult to remain motivated in the current scenario where interactions are mostly online. These children either drop out of school or enroll in a new school (mostly private) where quality is ensured with a higher monetary price to pay,” Nair said.

The stigma is not an exaggeration. A simple Google search shows people asking questions like “Is it safe to live with a cancer patient” on the internet because of lack of knowledge that cancer is not contagious or communicable.

But that is not all. “Due to the gap in education, children suffering from cancer find it difficult to remain in the same grade with younger children. They either skip grades or are admitted in higher grades, where their performance is affected as there is no system to provide solutions to bridge the gap. In both scenarios, the child is mentally stressed,” the organisation added.

Talking about the issues that gaps in education create for future employability, the St. Judes CEO said, “Children may face challenges to qualify for government jobs which have a strict age and education criteria. However, in the private sectors, they are absorbed well. Survivors are encouraged to lead a normal life after completion of five years from diagnosis.”

Cancer and its treatment in itself is a cause of stress and fear for patients and their families. And the associated issues of stigma, loss of education, and lack of better opportunities at a later stage just add to the woes of the already suffering individuals. Easier access to quality healthcare, increased awareness, and a more understanding and adaptive education system can go a long way in helping cancer survivors and patients lead a normal and better life.

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First published on: 02-08-2021 at 18:02 IST