Back to School After Cancer Treatment: Making Sense of the Adolescent Experience

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Little is known about the influence of cancer on the adolescent’s developing self-identity and social relationships as he/she transitions back to school following cancer treatment.


The purpose of this study was to explore the meaning of returning to school for adolescents who have completed cancer treatment.


In this qualitative study, in-depth interviews using an interpretive descriptive approach were conducted with 11 adolescents (aged 13–17 years) who had completed treatment for cancer. The transcripts of the audiotaped interviews were analyzed thematically and reviewed by the study team.


Three main themes suggested that the return to school hallmarked the end of an illness episode and a welcome return to a sense of well-being: (a) being on the right track, (b) bridging two worlds, and (c) establishing a new life at school. Nearly all adolescents described being negatively impacted by the cancer experience. However, the ability to maintain friendships during the transition emerged as particularly salient to allow the adolescents to rise above the challenges and residual effects of cancer treatment.


Returning to school following cancer treatment affects adolescents’ beliefs about themselves, their self-identity, and their social relationships. Understanding the meaning that adolescents ascribed to returning to school facilitated the development of practice recommendations to improve adjustment to school.

Implications for Practice:

Our study findings illuminate an important gap in the existing resources for adolescents in the posttreatment phase of cancer. Recommendations to promote healthy psychosocial development are proposed to better support adolescents during the reintegration to school.

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