Cancer impacts people of all ages, races, and religions, including college students. Roughly 1.8 million Americans were diagnosed with cancer in 2019 alone, meaning about 1 in every 100 college students could face some form of the disease while in school. But a cancer diagnosis doesn’t mean having to give up on your dreams of higher education. Numerous resources exist to help students battling or recovering from the disease conquer their academic challenges and achieve their educational goals. This guide connects both students and parents to those resources, and includes detailed information about self-care, legal rights, time management techniques, and how to locate (or create) supportive environments. It also provides key information and insight from a five-time cancer survivor and award-winning cancer coach.
Challenges for College Students with Cancer
There are many tough realities for students dealing with cancer in college. It’s not something anyone can really understand unless they’ve had to face it themselves. In this section, we’ll walk through some of the most common hurdles that college students with cancer often face, including the physical, mental, and emotional side effects and byproducts. This section speaks to the effects felt from most types of cancer treatments today.
Even if a student is receiving treatment, or in-between treatments, cancer treatments cause a wide range of physical issues, including exhaustion and lowered immunity. While the physical effects of cancer and cancer treatment are serious for everyone, college students may feel the effects acutely since they are working toward a degree, taking classes, completing assignments, and engaging in other taxing activities.
Gastrointestinal and Stomach Issues
Students and patients with cancer also experience serious mental side effects. Many patients feel heightened senses of confusion, lack of awareness, or can become very upset at a moment’s notice. While mental challenges are closely tied to both our physical and emotional states, here are symptoms that are commonly reported among college students who are battling cancer.
Individuals with cancer can also be subject to a variety of emotional challenges. When one receives a cancer diagnosis, it’s a life-changing event that can cause distress, depression, anxiety, and more. Students with cancer may experience some overarching or existential feelings about not feeling “normal” or display a lack of confidence.
Wanting to Feel “Normal”
Struggles with Confidence
Making College Work When You Have Cancer
Now that we’ve explored how cancer can affect you as a college student, it’s time to consider some of the best ways for you to conquer those issues. This next section gives support and solutions that can help you function to the best of your abilities in school. Some of these tips may be the difference between managing your schoolwork or feeling overwhelmed with seemingly insurmountable tasks.
Find the Environments That Work for You
Managing Your Workload
Online Learning for Students with Cancer
Rights for College Students with Cancer
As a student with cancer, your institution should acknowledge your disease as a type of disability for all school-related intents and purposes. According to the U.S. Office for Civil Rights, you have certain protections under law, and you should be afforded reasonable accommodations to help you throughout your duration as a student. Let’s take a closer look at your rights and things you can do to make sure you receive support.
Working with Your Professors
One of your best and most reliable resources on-campus or online is your professors. Many of your instructors will have years of experience teaching at the college level and have taught and accommodated students with disabilities before. Here are some tips for getting the accommodation you need.
- Be sure to talk to your professors about any accommodations you think you may need before the semester starts or immediately at the start.
- You will also need to contact the student services office on-campus that handles student disability cases. That office will send an official notice to all of your professors that documents your case.
- Ask your teachers for some additional help, as needed. Their job is to ensure that all of their students have a fair chance to do their best in class. In this way, many professors will be more than happy to meet with you outside of class or online to give you some extra guidance through course materials.
- One of the primary accommodations requested by students with disabilities is extensions on test-taking times. In these cases, students are simply asking that they have more time to work through an exam, or they request to take the exam in a physical location that better accommodates their disability.
- As a student with cancer, if you are having trouble with fatigue, for example, it would be understandable that you’d request more time to complete exams or homework assignments. Be open with your professors and let them know how you feel. If you begin to experience some kind of new problem or challenge part-way through the semester, contact your professors immediately to make sure the appropriate changes are made to your schedule. Most teachers today will ensure that you get what you need. If they don’t assist you immediately, contact your student affairs office.
Learning Rights of Students in Postsecondary Schools
There are two federal laws that guarantee equal opportunity for individuals with disabilities in relation to services and employment. In order to cover all of their legal bases, students need to present documentation of their illness, disease, or disability to the college in written form. College students with disabilities are protected from discrimination in higher education by the following acts:
Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 (ADA) and 2008 amendments
The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the public sphere, including schools, public transportation, places of employment, and other locations that are open to the public, even if they are privately owned. Educational institutions that are run by religious organizations, however, are not covered by the ADA. The ADA focuses heavily on work and employment situations, so this is important for undergraduates and graduate students who are employed by their college or university.
Rehabilitation Act of 1973 (specifically section 504)
The U.S. Office for Civil Rights, under the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, reports that, “A student with long-term, debilitating medical problems such as cancer… may be given special consideration to accommodate the student’s needs. For example, a student with cancer may need a class schedule that allows for rest and recuperation following chemotherapy.” If you find that your college or university is reluctant or hesitant to make accommodations, you can seek support through the U.S. Office of Civil Rights or the Disability Rights Legal Center.
How Students with Cancer Can Advocate for Themselves and Get Help
Sometimes one of the hardest parts of getting help is knowing how and where to ask for it. In this section, we offer students with cancer some options and resources so they can advocate for themselves when it comes to receiving support at school.
Where to go for help at school
What to ask for
How to ask
When to make contact
College & Cancer: Expert Insight
Shariann Tom is a five-time cancer survivor. Her cancer journeys and 20 years of coaching experience inspired her to start a worldwide movement to change the way people experience cancer. In 2010, she was Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Honoree of the Year.
The Cancer Journey Institute (CJI), co-founded by Shariann Tom and Keri Lehmann in 2012, is the first cancer coach training company in the U.S., headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area and the only one approved by the International Coach Federation. CJI’s transformational training programs teach coaches to help people travel cancer with grace and power. Their work has supported thousands of cancer patients, survivors, and caregivers from all over the world. They can be reached at www.thecancerjourney.com
Q: In your experience, what online or in-person resources would you recommend for college students with cancer today?
Q: What are some things that students can do regularly (daily, weekly, etc.) to help them cope with life as a student who is battling cancer?
Q: You are a five-time cancer survivor who has had others by your side for support. What’s one piece of advice you could give to families and friends of those who are supporting students battling cancer today?
Q: What are some of the most effective resources that you’ve seen help people when they are dealing with the weight of cancer in their lives? Is there any you’d recommend for students, and how can they access that help?
Resources and Tools for Students with Cancer
These online resources will help you find where to get help at your school and in your community. Bear in mind that there are many valuable resources available to you today, most of which are free and open to the public. If you feel that any of your needs are not being met at your school, don’t hesitate to seek additional support outside of your institution.
Health Centers: Here’s what you can expect from a health center on-campus at your college or university.
Disability Center: The NCCSD provides an excellent resource on the services offered at disability resource centers on college campuses (referring to those schools that offer this service).
Counseling Center: PsychologyToday.com gives detailed information about psychological and mental health services that students have access to at most college and university counseling centers.
Tutoring Center: Each school’s tutoring offerings will vary, although many today will provide you with online tutoring services. The University Tutor and Tutor.com offer online tutoring for college learners of all types if you can’t get the help you need through school.
Annie Appleseed Project: You can find information on alternative and integrative care for cancer survivors and a variety of resources focused on advocacy and education.
Cancer.gov: This site offers definitions of different types of cancers in young people, doctor and hospital search tools, and direct links to emotional support resources.
CancerCenter.com: The Cancer Treatment Centers of America provide an excellent resources page with cancer news updates and information on the latest research in the field.
Cancer Warrior Alliance: This information center for the cancer community also plugs allies into volunteer opportunities.
Center for Disease Control and Prevention: The CDC dedicates part of its site to offering the latest news and information on cancer for patients and survivors.
Feather Foundation: This organization provides information, financial support, and emotional support for parents who are battling cancer.
The Half Fund: This non-profit spreads cancer awareness by carrying out different types of major events that attract attention, including movies, TV shows, and music recordings.
LiveStrong.org: Cancer patients, survivors, and their families can use this site to locate resource guides, emotional well-being tips, and information on nationwide community programs.
National LGBT Cancer Network: This organization supports the LGBTQ population with cancer, offering online resources and cultural competency training.
StupidCancer.org: Stupid Cancer provides quick access to online resources including webinars, fundraising opportunities, information on financial assistance for those battling cancer.
Cancer101.org: The site includes a series of online programs, or its “toolkit,” to help cancer patients deal with their diagnoses, manage daily life challenges, and more.
The Cancer Journey Institute: The organization provides a wide variety of services for cancer patients and survivors, including its unique cancer coaching program.
Chemocare.com: This site focuses on nutrition and managing the side effects of drugs for cancer patients. They offer a tool for users to look up how medications may interact with their particular cancer treatment.
Churchill Center and School: This organization provides tutoring services for young cancer survivors in Missouri.
CureToday.com: Users can take advantage of its online videos, guides, and research reports on cancer topics.
Elephants and Tea: This organization provides opportunities for cancer patients and survivors to express themselves through creative projects and more.
INOVA: Cancer patients and survivors can take advantage of online support groups, wellness programs, counseling, and educational classes.