This information is designed to help if one of your students or trainees tells you they have cancer.
The impact of a cancer diagnosis on a young person can vary widely. This summary contains some of the common symptoms, side effects of treatment and ways you can help students manage this challenging and sometimes traumatic experience.
You have important legal responsibilities in relation to disabled students. This means you can't discriminate against people with cancer. Within reason, you also have to make changes to help them access the course and complete their studies.
The impact of cancer
There are many different types of cancer and treatment, affecting each individual differently. Tiredness, weight loss, breathlessness and pain are just a few of the symptoms.
The main treatments for cancer are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. All of these can potentially impact on the employee through side effects including:
- feeling and being sick
- tiredness and fatigue
- changes in mood
- eating difficulties
- reduced resistance to infection
- hair loss
- other changes in physical appearance, such as changes in weight and swollen hands, face, ankles or feet.
In some cases, a student may return to work having had a limb amputated or with scars from surgery.
Talking to your student or trainee
All experiences are different and it's best to talk to your student directly to understand how cancer is affecting them.
Supporting students and trainees with cancer is a lot about flexibility and open communication. It's good practice to offer opportunities to meet and discuss their needs in confidence. This especially applies when:
- you first know about their diagnosis
- they need to take time off
- they return to their course after treatment
Consider the potential impact of a cancer diagnosis or treatment on their self-esteem. Some young people may become anxious about their future prospects. They may lack the confidence to talk about their cancer and may have had bad experiences with previous education providers misunderstanding their needs.
Fulfilling your legal duties
People with cancer automatically meet the definition of 'disabled' under the Equality Act (England, Wales and Scotland) and the Disablity Discrimination Act (Northern Ireland). Education and training providers have a duty not to discriminate against potential, current or former students. All aspects of studying are covered including:
- course admissions
- providing education and training
- access to facilities and services
Discrimination can take various forms including:
- Direct discrimination e.g. rejecting a student's application for a course or apprenticeship for cancer-related reasons
- Indirect discrimination e.g. requiring students to use online systems which are not accessible to screen reading software. This could be seen as indirect discrimination against a student with a visual impairment caused by cancer.
- Discrimination arising from disability e.g. penalising students for missing classes, without taking their cancer into account
- Harassment e.g. bullying, abuse, inappropriate comments, jokes or gestures
- Victimisation e.g. treating a student with cancer less favourably because they have previously made a complaint about discrimination.
It's important to realise you have a legal duty to support students and trainees with cancer. Where reasonable, you should make changes to help them do their course or training during and after treatment. Failure to make 'reasonable adjustments' is a form of discrimination.
Support and reasonable adjustments
It is good practice to ask the young person's own views on the support they need and what adjustments would be useful.
Some colleges might choose to arrange a more formal needs assessment. This is more common in higher education where the assessment can be wrapped up with the Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs) needs assessment.
You can support students to apply for DSAs. These could pay for specialist equipment such as a digital recorder for recording lectures or magnification software if they have a visual impairment caused by cancer, books they might be too tired to carry backwards and forwards from the library and extra travel costs if a student needs to use taxis rather than public transport.
In England and Wales, students with a cancer diagnosis may also have an Education, Health and Care (EHC) plan. This plan can be shared with colleges and training providers to help them arrange the necessary support.
Students need to tell you about their diagnosis before you can put support and reasonable adjustments in place. What is considered reasonable always depends on individual circumstances. For example, if fatigue is an issue, it might be reasonable to provide supervised rest breaks during exams.
Potential adjustments for students with a cancer diagnosis could include:
- extra time for course work and extensions to deadlines if they have fatigue
- scribes or notetakers
- a designated parking space
- a locker or somewhere they can leave stuff rather than carry it around
- arrangements for special dietary needs, for example being allowed to keep food in a fridge or eat snacks during classes
- flexibility in attendance and punctuality when they go for hospital appointments and treatment
- support for practical and field work
- use of computers and specialist software in exams
- communication with staff during any periods they’re away
- staff awareness of cancer and the impact it can have (while keeping information about the student’s individual situation confidential).
Other ways to help
With the student's permission, you could refer them to other relevant services at your institution such as money advice, accommodation, health and well-being centres, counselling and careers advice.
It's important not to assume a student has recovered just because their hair has grown back or they're no longer receiving hospital treatment as an inpatient. Young people may have late effects from treatment. This could mean muscle pain, dips in energy and lethargy.