College and Cancer: Tips from the Inside

by Michele Rosenthal

One of my former students and advisees has said, “Being a college student is difficult enough. Adding cancer to the mix only makes things harder.”

I have been privileged to call higher education my professional home for many years. My experiences put me in close touch with students, faculty and administrative colleagues. I thoroughly enjoy working with young adults because of their energy, enthusiasm, and drive to move forward in their lives. My administratlibrary-869061_640ive work both in student and academic affairs at institutions in the midatlantic and northeastern regions of the United States has allowed me to support and help college students navigate the academic and student services landscape so that they can maximize their college journey.

In my experience, when college students are diagnosed with cancer, their drive to move forward does not diminish. For some the path may need to be altered or put on hold, but the commitment to complete their degree and move forward is palpable.

This drive is especially important at a time when budget concerns have forced institutions to cut back on resources. On many campuses, there are fewer staff members and many members of the faculty have been tasked with increased administrative responsibilities.

The very good news is that those who choose to work in higher education are committed to education and to doing their best to create academic environments that are conducive to learning despite cut backs and limited resources.

The result of budget cuts sometimes means that students need to work harder to advocate for themselves however. Simply stated, on some campuses in can be difficult to meet with a staff member in person as immediately as one may like or to receive a quick response to an email because personnel have been reduced and workloads are large. In the case of a college student who has been diagnosed with cancer, self-advocacy and tenacity are essential. It is especially important for you to be able to tell your unique story so that a situation can be created to fit your needs.

If you are student who has been diagnosed with cancer, here are 3 things that you absolutely need to know:

Create Your Support Network: While tittles vary, it is important to consider resources like The Director of Disabilities Services and Support, The Director of Health Services, The Dean of Students, Your class dean or academic advisor, your favorite professor, the Office of Student Services. Staff members in these offices will be poised to assist and support you. It is important to reach out to the The Director of Disabilities Services and Support early since accommodations that you may be entitled to (ex. extra time on an exam, housing preferences, transportation needs) cannot be granted retroactively. It might be a bit difficult to secure an appointment early on but do not give up. These folks will want to help you! Advocate and help them to get to know you.

You can complete your degree: While your diagnosis and treatment plan may alter your timeline, you can complete your degree. Do your best to be open to a reduced course load, taking time off and securing accommodations to support you while on campus. It may take time to be willing and open to making a change in your academic plan. Keep your eye on the prize and trust that although your plan may need to change, there are creative options that will allow you to earn your degree.

Create a Balance: Don’t forget to continue to engage in all that you love. If you were part of a team but can’t compete at the time of your diagnosis, maybe you can help manage it to continue to be involved. If you sang acapella or attended Student Government meetings, continue to as your treatment plan and energy allow. Do your best to let others in (as you feel comfortable) while engaging in a realistic curricular and co-curricular plan that makes sense for you.

Please feel free to contact me at MicheleRosenthal@Verizon.net if you need support and assistance to navigate and carve out a path for your unique journey.

Michele Rosenthal is a member of Triage Cancer's Speakers Bureau and an educational consultant who has helped countless young adults with cancer identify appropriate on-campus resources and develop realistic plans for their unique circumstances.  She is currently the Assistant Dean, Undergraduate Programs, Sawyer Business School, Suffolk University.

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