Dealing with cancer in PSHE can promote health and allay fears, says Chris Rushbrook

Cancer affects nearly all young people. With more than one in three people in the UK diagnosed with the illness at some point in their lives, many young people will know a friend, family member, or even teacher that has cancer. Talking about the subject with students is essential in helping them deal with the issues surrounding cancer, and corresponds with PSHE curriculum guidelines.

Even if young people haven’t come into direct contact with cancer, they will probably be aware of high-profile celebrities with the disease, or hear about it through a storyline on their favourite TV soap opera. In research conducted with young people by nfpSynergy in October 2005, cancer was ranked second in a top 10 of health, social, environmental and global issues they were concerned about. This ranking was higher than that for bullying, cruelty to animals, racism and protection of the environment among other topics.

Cancer myths
Young people will all have their own ideas and beliefs about the disease. These are often misguided or misinformed and are usually grounded in society’s fear of a dreaded illness. A recent Cancerbackup survey reveals that 74% of teenagers in the UK say they would not know what to say to a friend with cancer, while 50% say they would avoid talking to them about it. More worryingly, a third think that cancer can be caused by knocks and bumps, and more than one in 10 think the disease is ‘catching’.

Young people’s misconceptions can be tackled and unnecessary fears reduced through giving them the facts about cancer and answering their questions about the illness. This will better equip them to deal with an issue that already affects them.

Key facts for students to understand about cancer: 

  • it is nothing you have done or said that caused cancer 
  • you cannot catch cancer from anyone else 
  • some lifestyle choices reduce the chance of getting cancer (eg daily exercise), and others increase it (eg smoking) 
  • nobody knows why some people develop cancer and others don’t
  • people do not always die if they get cancer, many recover fully from the illness and go on to lead normal lives 
  • childhood cancer is very rare, affecting one in 600 children before the age of 15, and the recovery rate for childhood cancer is over 70%.

Cancer and the curriculum
Current national curriculum guidelines for PSHE offer a range of ways that the subject of cancer can be addressed with young people, especially through the area of developing a healthy, safer life. There is a range of healthy lifestyle choices young people can make to reduce their risk of getting cancer later in life. Teachers can raise the subject of cancer as part of discussions on the health risks associated with alcohol and tobacco, as well as different food choices, exercise and sunbathing.

Each of these could form the basis of a discussion to encourage students to think about the issue in more depth, such as:

  • talking about the media’s and celebrities’ responsibilities for providing positive role models to young people with regard to drinking and smoking 
  • considering whether efforts made by high-profile figures such as Jamie Oliver to change eating habits at schools has made a difference 
  • exploring why having a tan is associated with looking healthy, and whether this is a healthy association.

When tackling the subject of cancer with young people, they will often want to discuss issues outside of what cancer is and how to reduce the risk of getting it. Teachers must be prepared to discuss the emotional and practical impacts a cancer diagnosis can have on the person with cancer and their friends and family. These will include dealing with strong emotions associated with serious illness or death, considering how a cancer diagnosis can affect relationships, and being aware of new practical needs that might arise within the family, such as a young person needing to become a young carer to look after a parent with cancer.

Supporting teachers
For teachers to feel confident in raising the subject of cancer, it is vital that they have good understanding of the illness. Due to attitudes towards discussing cancer in the past, some adults are themselves not sure of the facts about cancer, its causes, treatments and effects. Giving yourself a good grounding in the subject beforehand will certainly help you feel better equipped to respond to any questions that come up as part of a discussion of the disease.

Some guiding principles to follow are: 

  • answer any questions honestly and truthfully 
  • don’t be afraid to say that you don’t know the answer and suggest that you can find out together 
  • talk through any concerns without being prescriptive or judgemental 
  • offer reassurance by explaining how positive lifestyle choices can reduce the risk of developing cancer and other serious illnesses
  • give your pupils details of how to find information and answers to their questions themselves, such as by visiting Macmillan Cancer Support’s youth website at

Macmillan’s Cancertalk website for teachers has a section on real life experiences which enables staff and students to discuss personal stories through case studies which include: ‘Our daughter had cancer’, ‘My brother had cancer’, ‘I have cancer (young person)’ and ‘I have cancer (adult)’. Importantly, the website also provides an opportunity for everyone
to share their story. This can offer young people a source of help, inspiration and motivation to others whose lives have been affected by cancer.

Free resources
To order a copy of the Cancertalk teaching pack, please call 0845 601 1716 or email [email protected]
You can also find more information and support, as well as electronic copies of Macmillan’s teaching resources on the Cancertalk teacher’s website

Chris Rushbrook is the schools and youth coordinator for Macmillan Cancer Support.