What Do You Tell a Child about Cancer?

It's hard for a child to understand cancer. That's why an eighth grade class in VT devoted its energies to making cancer easier for kids to understand.

Focus article photo

Seated from left to right: Maggie Evans, Emily Greenstein, Rachel Savoie, Gregory Ripple, MD, Molly Moore, Christian Kapoukranidis, Tara Sathi, Anna Pommerville. Standing: Bassem Zaki, MD, Kristal Renaudett, RN

Cancer is scary to kids, especially when it affects their parents, grandparents, or teachers. A World Issues class at the Riverside School, in Lyndonville, VT, decided to do something about it. The class wrote, designed, and printed "Understanding Cancer with Dr. Fox: An Activity Book [pdf]" for students in first through fifth grades.

Cartoon character, Dr. Fox, helps children understand cancer

The book has word search, crossword puzzle, maze, and connect-the-dot exercises, each designed to teach children a specific lesson in cancer. On the last day of their school year, the students delivered a box of Dr. Fox activity books to Norris Cotton Cancer Center (NCCC) in St. Johnsbury, VT, in hopes that the books will make their way into the hands of children whose parents, grandparents, aunts or uncles are facing cancer. This past weekend they offered it on the children's activity table at a memorial service for a fellow student's father.

Cancer struck this small independent elementary school in the Northeast Kingdom hard in the last two years. In each case, students and staff took action. The Riverside School hosted a barn dance and silent auction for a friend who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Following the passing from cancer of the school's long-time office manager, Audrey Rexford, they established a Memorial Fund to dedicate a section of the school's new barn in Rexford's memory.

"Audrey was a great figure in the school family, very grandmotherly, all the students knew her very well," said Nelia Dwyer, teacher of the Word Issues class that produced the book.

The school also established a Relay for Life Team in Audrey's honor and the class plans to bring activity books to the American Cancer Society event this summer

"All you know is that it [cancer] hurts you," said student Christian Kapoukraniedis, "You don't know what happens on the inside."

Northeast Kingdom kids learn about cancer

The school connected early with NCCC St. Johnsbury to learn about cancer. Hematologist-Oncologist Ronald Kubica, MD, Practice Manager Markes Wilson, and Northeastern Vermont Regional Hospital Librarian Betsy Merrill visited the Riverside School and gave presentations on cancer. In small pairs and groups, the class took on the task of explaining the scientific basis of cancer to a young reader.

Cells are like people, they all have different jobs. Some cells make up your heart and help spread blood around, some make up your skin and help protect your body, others fight sickness. Occasionally cells get confused about their jobs and accidently hurt you. This is called cancer.
Teaching kids about cancer: small school hopes for big impact

"We wanted to educate other children so they would know what cancer was about and know how to help other people," said Tara Sethi, one of the two students who proposed the book as a service learning project.

The assignment was to advance one of eight goals in the United Nations Millennium Project and make an impact. "It is really not going to reach thousands of people so it's a good small project," said student Anna Pomerville. "It would be good if it has an effect on one community."

Teaching Kids about Cancer Group Photo

"A part of my practice as a teacher is service learning," said Dwyer, "which is different from community service. We take what we are studying and figure out how it matters in our community. Students take ownership of their learning and make decisions about the courses they are learning."

In this case the students chose to focus on cancer among many global issues because it had an impact on their community and decided to address the issue through the development of an activity book.

The kids say they wished they had time to do something bigger. Some of the next steps they are thinking about include raising money, printing more copies, and producing the book in color.

"Just having the interest and showing thoughtfulness regarding cancer means these kids have already had a big impact," said Markes Wilson, practice manager, Norris Cotton Cancer Center, St. Johnsbury. "This is a wonderful resource for patients' children. I've already had interest both in St. Johnsbury as well as Lebanon for this great resource."

The Riverside students dedicated the book to their own friends and family who have struggled with cancer.

Download "Understanding Cancer with Dr. Fox: An Activity Book [pdf]"

June 12, 2013