Years ago, cancer survivor Susan Nessim found that getting back into college life after a struggle with cancer was nearly as difficult as the early stages of the disease itself. With that in mind, she created Cancervive, an organization for survivors and their families. The group provides curriculum materials that teach about surviving cancer and re-entering the larger society. Included: Information about ordering videos for classroom use and a teacher's guide.
"I know the fear that kids with cancer feel when they 'check back' into school," Susan Nessim told Education World. "They want to be treated just like everyone else, but often teachers and friends are uncertain how to act around them."
Nessim's own experience with cancer began during her first semester of college, at the University of Colorado. After a few trips home to San Francisco for tests, she was diagnosed with a rare childhood cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma. She immediately returned to California to start a difficult course of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.
"The thought of returning to school gave me a goal," said Nessim. "Finally, after a year, I received the OK to go back to college. I was both excited and terrified. The hospital world had been safe and familiar. I had changed and wondered if I would fit in with others my age."
Her own experience with cancer gives Nessim the unique understanding required to lend a voice to the challenges that survivors encounter. She passionately shares what she has learned to benefit others, especially children. Nessim believes that a medical cure for cancer is not enough -- kids who have fought cancer deserve the same educational opportunities other children enjoy. She thinks that the strength and wisdom of sick children have value to society as a whole.
Nessim realized that no existing cancer organization addressed the psychological and social needs of people who had finished treatment, so she started Cancervive, a group for cancer survivors and their families.
"The focus of other organizations has always been the cancer patient, the person who is dealing with the disease, and treatment issues," explained Nessim. "I know from my own experience that 'life after cancer' is often more difficult to navigate than the initial phases of the illness. Survivors are unprepared for the obstacles that they will encounter once they leave the hospital setting. By founding Cancervive, I was determined to validate the concerns of survivors and provide desperately needed services to this growing population."
The number of young survivors is encouraging. According to Nessim, some of the highest cancer cure rates occur among children and adolescents. Three-quarters of the 12,400 children and adolescents younger than 20 who are diagnosed with childhood cancer each year can now be cured. By the year 2010, it is estimated, one in 250 young adults will be survivors of childhood cancer. Cancervive is committed to helping those survivors achieve their academic goals and maintain the social skills necessary to become productive adults.
With the growing number of survivors comes a new set of needs and concerns. Cancervive addresses these in two 15-minute videos and a 50-page teacher's guide educators can use in the classroom when a child returns to school after cancer treatment. Nessim has found that re-integrating a child with cancer into a school setting requires both knowledge and compassion.
One of the Cancervive "back to school" videos, Emily's Story, traces a nine-year-old girl's journey from the hospital to her successful return to school. It is designed for elementary schools. The other video, Making the Grade, profiles three teens who have had cancer. It speaks to issues unique to adolescents. The films were created as documentaries so that the children could convey their points-of-view. Nessim describes the videos as tools that are ideal for classroom presentations and school staff meetings.
Medical advances make it possible for children with cancer to spend much less time in hospitals and clinics and more time at school. Nessim believes that maintaining an ill child's presence in the school environment is essential to providing "normalcy." She says that when children with cancer attend school, they have the opportunity to master the social skills and academic competence necessary to prepare for the future, just as their healthy classmates do.
"I'd advise a teacher who has a child with cancer in his or her classroom to become informed about the child's disease and treatment plan," said Nessim. "Often a lack of knowledge or misinformation can increase fears and anxiety for the teacher, ill child, and classmates. I encourage educators to obtain up-to-date resources and form a partnership with the child's parents and appropriate hospital staff."
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