Surviving Childhood Cancer: From Confidence Buster to Confidence Builder

By Barb Williams

It is surprising to many to hear that childhood cancer does not end with “being cured.” Childhood cancer and brain tumour survivors can develop learning difficulties resulting from their disease or treatment. These late effects may be further complicated by long-term physical effects, as well as emotional problems and mental health issues. It is easy to see how and why these young survivors face struggles in the worlds of work and school. Despite their physical and cognitive challenges, childhood cancer survivors have high aspirations for themselves and are motivated to achieve their goals. The POGO Transitions Program was developed as the result of parents’, patients’ and doctors’ concerns about young students, many with invisible disabilities, falling through the cracks at a critical time in their academic lives—graduating high school and moving on to college, university or work.

The Ups and Downs of Disclosing That You Are a Childhood Cancer Survivor

I want to point out that not all survivors struggle to meet their academic and professional ambitions. For some, the obstacles they experienced due to their childhood cancer have helped build their resilience, discipline and confidence. But there are a significant number of childhood cancer survivors who are grappling with emotional and mental health issues, including anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, low confidence and self-worth—sometimes accompanied by social isolation and bullying. And these issues, as much as their learning challenges, can severely impact their ability to achieve their goals and become independent young adults.
As one of five POGO Counsellors across the province, it is my job to strengthen my clients’ confidence through realistic goal planning and facilitate their transition to post-secondary school and work. While there is a practical element to this in terms of job preparation and academic pathway information and navigation, there is often an emotional component. This is to say, I provide early guidance and career planning, help clients access the appropriate accommodations for school and work, and work with them to ensure their dreams and goals align with their strengths and skills. However, my colleagues and I also help our survivor clients address self-confidence and anxiety issues by listening without judgment and showing we care, and when further psychosocial intervention is required, we make the appropriate referrals. This one-on-one emotional support and encouragement POGO Counsellors provide is highly valued by survivors, as well as their family members who support them.

Sam’s Story: Focusing on Ability, Not Impairment

When I describe my job as working with childhood cancer survivors who experience challenges with school or work as a result of their disease or treatment, the most common reaction I get is how it must be such difficult or depressing work.  On the contrary; I get to meet young people on their journey of surviving childhood cancer and planning for their futures, even if there are obstacles to overcome. We envision their next steps and talk about their dreams. I get the opportunity to engage with them in something positive, and if they are not feeling positive, there is a chance, with the rest of the healthcare team, to intervene and set them up for success. These are the things that make our Program so unique, so important and so uplifting. The most exciting thing for me as a POGO Counsellor is to watch my survivor clients’ self-confidence and ability to advocate for themselves increase, witness them rise to challenges they didn’t think themselves capable of, and see them achieve their goals and aspirations.

Barb Williams is the Provincial Coordinator and POGO Counsellor in the Hamilton area for The POGO School and Work Transitions Program (POGO Transitions Program). The Program facilitates a smoother transition for childhood cancer and brain tumour survivors moving on from high school to appropriate post-secondary and work opportunities. This post is based on Barb’s professional experience and the 2020 report The Transition to Meaningful Activity for Childhood Cancer Survivors: Understanding the Role of The POGO School and Work Transitions Program.

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