As new therapies offer better survival rates to children with cancer, some are returning to school in the midst of treatments.
They’re sometimes met with stares, finger-pointing and blunt questions from classmates who have never seen chemotherapy-induced hair loss and other visible side effects of surgery and cancerfighting drugs.
Kris Frost, a pediatric education coordinator at MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital, uses puppets to help ease cancer patients’ return to school. Each mirrors a side effect of cancer, including hair loss, limb loss, or the need for a walker or wheelchair.
With puppets in tow, Frost visits classrooms to help students understand cancer and accept their fellow classmate who looks different.
“Teasing and tormenting are usually caused by fear,” Frost says. “Once we educate children and eliminate their fear, the teasing goes away.”
The newest puppet depicts neurofibromatosis, an unpredictable, progressive disorder that causes tumors, sometimes disfiguring, to form anywhere in the body. Most of the tumors are benign, but about 7 to 10 percent become cancerous.
MD Anderson’s Neurofibromatosis Clinic treats children and adults who have the disease.
For help in drafting puppet show scripts that educate classmates, teachers and school administrators about pediatric cancers and related conditions like neurofibromatosis, MD Anderson enlisted drama students from Lamar High School in Houston. A question-and-answer period follows each production.
“Puppets are friendly and non-threatening, and a great way to get messages across to children,” says Frost, one of two staff members who deliver the shows, which are hosted by MD Anderson’s Pediatric Education and Creative Arts Program. She also counsels about 50 patients and families each month, and meets with school administrators and teachers to pave the
way for cancer patients’ smooth re-entry into the classroom.
“Many of the kids I see are anxious about academics and relationships at school.
Some have even been bullied,” Frost says.
“It’s my mission to help each one resume a normal life with lots of love and support.”