Cancer, my disability: Returning to school after a diagnosis

Cancer, my disability: Returning to school after a diagnosis

 By Gabrielle Fecteau

Am I the only student living with cancer?

If you ever find yourself on the local campus of a post-secondary institution near you, take a moment to observe the people around you. You will find that the age group that makes up the majority of the student body is the same as the one used to define the young adult cancer population.

When I received my cancer diagnosis, I knew this to be true. I was, after all, one of these students. Still, I did not believe that there could be an overlap between young adult cancer thrivers and students on my campus!

Turns out, there were many other students living similar realities as I was. In fact, many young adults diagnosed with cancer are current or recent students in post-secondary institutions.

Since my cancer diagnosis, I have started noticing more and more students on campus living with cancer. I met many in unexpected manners, some through regular student life activities and others through cancer-related activities. Often, I heard of students experiencing similar difficulties as I was.

For example, I once read on an anonymous forum that a fellow student of mine had been criticized for having taken the elevator up one floor. This student divulged that they were recovering from chemotherapy treatments. Exhaustion made it impossible for the student to climb stairs; I knew exactly what she was talking about.

Slowly, as I discovered a community of fellow cancer thrivers on campus, I learned more about my reality and the reality of students living with cancer. I was validated in my challenges around brain fog, decreased stamina, pain, fatigue, anxiety, and juggling my necessary “patient” responsibilities.

Cancer has made my life as a post-secondary student difficult, but I am not alone!

Going to school as a cancer thriver

The decision to complete studies as a cancer thriver is highly individualized. It depends on various factors such as finances, responsibilities, and goals. It is a big decision that is not done lightly. It involves a leap of faith into the rest of your life.

I was diagnosed with cancer during the summer after completing my second year of university. This meant that my student life abruptly changed following my cancer diagnosis. One of these major changes included moving back home with my parents, far away from my student life.

It took some time for me to acknowledge that my student life was so very important to me. I slowly came to the realization that I needed to find a way to incorporate it into my new cancer life.

With the encouragement of my parents, I enrolled in classes at our local university the following semester. For me, being a student was an antidote to the growing despair I felt. It got me out of the house, gave me purpose and allowed me to continue to dream of my future.

School and cancer have never been easy. Completing post-secondary education as a student living with cancer has actually been one of the biggest challenges I have had to face.

One of my best examples of this can be illustrated by this following story. I had been administered my biweekly dose of chemotherapy on the Friday prior. On the Monday, I sat in class exhausted, nauseated, and unable to focus. I can only imagine what I looked like from my professor’s point of view. I was fighting the worse days of my chemotherapy cycle sitting in class. Needless to say, I have no idea what the professor taught that day.

When treatments ended, I made my way back to my pre-cancer university life at my home university with my friends and my work. I was now living on my own and having to take care of myself, all while completing courses.

“How can I study for my exam with all this brain fog? How do I make it across campus in time for my next class without needing a nap after? How do I reintegrate into student life when I have changed so much as a person?”

What I thought would be a simple transition back to “normal” life became an uphill battle. As I recovered, I needed to learn how to be a student again. How can I study for my exam with all this brain fog? How do I make it across campus in time for my next class without needing a nap after? How do I reintegrate into student life when I have changed so much as a person?

To this day, well into the survivorship phase of my cancer experience, I continue to see the impacts of cancer on my life as a student. One day at a time, I learn new things as any student is meant to. The difference is, being a student living with cancer also teaches me about myself, my limits and — mostly — my strengths.

My cancer is my disability

Like I previously stated, cancer makes life as a student very difficult. This makes reaching out for help an essential aspect of one’s new post-diagnosis life as a student.

I was fortunate enough to be well supported by my family and friends through this learning endeavour, but I also reached out to services on campus for students with disabilities.

I realize that society has not overtly labelled cancer as a disability. Many of my peers also do not identify as having a disability despite their cancer experiences.

I was fortunate enough to have in depth knowledge of the resources offered by postsecondary institutions for students with a documented disability. I knew that although cancer is not always advertised as a disability, it fit the criteria.

This meant that I, again, did not have to suffer alone. With the support of my care team, I reported my physical, cognitive, and mental limitations to my university to obtain the help I needed to have fair access to my education.

Being a student, having cancer: Next steps

Know your rights. As a student with disability, you are eligible to apply for support from the disability office of your post-secondary institution. Be informed of your legal rights as a student with a disability to ensure that you get the supports you need.

Inventory your strengths and take note of your new challenges. Learn to know yourself again as a student. Learn to learn again to ensure your own success.

Equip yourself with the proper tools. With cancer, many of the strategies and technologies you were using in past postsecondary education opportunities may not work for you anymore. Your reality is very different as a student living with cancer than it would have been pre-diagnosis. Find tools that support you in this new reality.

Get the right help. You do not need to do it all by yourself! Find the people in your personal life and in your student life that can help you through this process.

Many smiles,

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