Juggling Cancer and Classwork


Though they live only a few miles apart in Buffalo, Christine Lai first bonded with my brother six thousand miles away, on the snowy streets of Beijing.

Lai, an associate professor in Buffalo State's business department, shepherds a group of business students through the Forbidden City each winter. In 2011, David was one of them.

Lai remembers the 23-year-old Dave, a marketing major, as a "smart and motivated" student. Pictures of the trip show him healthy and rosy-cheeked, delighted to be exploring the world with Lai and her troop of twenty-somethings.

Just weeks later, however, Dave woke up with a brain tumor and a new identity: he was now a student with cancer. (You can read the full story of his initial diagnosis here.)

After taking time off to heal from his initial biopsy in Buffalo, Dave was determined to continue his schooling. Early on, Lai was enlisted again to lead the way for Dave–though during his first semester back, it would be on a virtual journey, completed via computer simulation. Using an educational game designed for upper-level marketing students, Lai created an independent study program that placed Dave in the role of an international trader, tasked with marketing toothbrushes in Latin America.

Thanks to Lai, Dave was able to complete most of his coursework from home–and keep his education on track.

"He did what he could do, when he could do it," Lai says. "And when he could do it, he was fantastic."

Dave has been on the Dean's List each semester since then, and now runs the Buffalo State marketing club. His hair has mostly grown back, though he shaved it recently after a new round of radiation treatments. He still confides in caring professors like Lai. But most of the time, he chooses to keep mum about his cancer at school–even as he's battled four brain tumors since 2011.

As his big sister, I've questioned this decision, remembering all too well how difficult college can be. Why not take advantage of a built-in excuse to turn in papers late, or take more time to study for tests, especially while juggling responsibilities his peers will never have to experience?

"Cancer makes school much more difficult in every imaginable way," Dave admits. But he's found that all too often, after he's spilled the beans on his brain tumors, "Cancer becomes the only deal. It becomes small talk amongst people that I'd rather be focusing on other topics with.”

Lai says she understands Dave's perspective. "He doesn't want to be treated differently,” she's observed. “If he's going to be singled out, he'd want to be singled out for his academic achievements."

Unfortunately, sometimes Dave's cancer announces itself against his wishes. His latest tumor recently had him vomiting every day, including in class, making it harder to mask his condition. In cases like this, he says, "I tell [professors] a brief introduction about myself, my disease, and how it is affecting me. They can react however they would like."

So how should professors react to a student with new and challenging needs?

Lai offers her perspective: "I don't think you need to lower your expectations," she says. "You just need to be flexible."

When it comes to logistics, technology can help. Teachers should stay abreast of the latest innovations, Lai says, making use of the recent boom in online educational software, videos and discussion boards to keep students involved on and off campus. Extending certain deadlines can also help students turn in the same high-quality work as their peers', on their own schedule. And overall, demonstrating that you are willing to be a compassionate partner in a student's learning can help combat anxiety over dealing with teachers as “authority figures,” Lai says.

Parents and students, by the same token, should not be afraid to request help from schools, which are legally obligated to make accommodations for students with cancer–as long as families provide the proper paperwork. (My mother, a social worker who has a long history with working with disabled students, has made sure my brother is registered with Buffalo State's Disability Resource Center, which protects him legally, and provides him and his professors with help in accommodating his on-and-off treatment schedule.)

Lai also points out that most teachers and administrators, not to mention those who develop curriculum and educational technology, love their jobs because they love to help students. More likely than not, they're willing to bend over backwards to help students succeed. “All you have to do is ask,” she says.

At the end of the day, however, Lai says that students should feel that they are in charge of their education, not teachers or parents.

“I can give them the right materials, the right strategies, but at the end of the day, students need to do the work to obtain the knowledge,” Lai says. “We can only point them in the right direction.”

Though it may seem like a dubious silver lining, Lai has observed that by dint of his challenges with cancer, Dave is learning (and applying) profound lessons about life as he makes his way through school. “If you're in business, you have to recognize when opportunities come along, and where threats exist. You can't control these things, but you must respond to it,” she says. “You can't predict cancer, but Dave's playing the hand that he's been dealt, and he's doing a good job … And that's why he'll be a very successful person.”

Lai says the emotional resources Dave's developed will serve him equally well in the future. “[Cancer] may stop him for a while in doing his work, but it hasn't stopped him from being the person he's meant to be,” she says. “It's probably made him more mature beyond his years, and it's really strengthened his character.”

As Dave approaches the finish line (he will graduate in May), he has three final challenges before him. The first is completing his current cycle of chemotherapy and radiation. The second is passing Mandarin. And the third is figuring out how to answer the question every college senior dreads: “So, what are you going to do when you graduate?”

Though Dave often jokes that all he wants to do is “sleep,” it's clear he's been taking the question seriously. “My goals and plans change every 20 minutes,” he says. “But I know that I want to ease some suffering of others including myself. And I'm pretty open to the modes and routes available for that.”

Back to School Resources

Roswell Park Resources

Roswell Park Department of Psychosocial Oncology

This department can advise Roswell Park patients and their families about the best way to navigate a student's return to school, from properly documenting doctor's visits to coping with physical challenges.

Learn More

Other Resources

Children with Cancer: Returning to School

This helpful page offers a guide for parents of children with cancer. It lists the many benefits of allowing a child with cancer to return to school, as well as ways to overcome the new obstacles he/she may face. It also offers some helpful ways for students to handle awkward questions at school.

Learn More

Cancer Scholarships

Students like my brother who are completing school while fighting cancer deserve special accolades and support. This page has information about scholarships that are designed to help students with cancer finish college.

Learn More

Livestrong: For Educators

Livestrong provides curriculum and training for teachers who wish to provide support in the classroom for students coping with cancer–whether they are patients themselves, or dealing with the illness of a loved one.

Learn More

Ryan Rose Weaver is a writer and teacher living in New York. Her younger brother, David, was diagnosed with an anaplastic astrocytoma in February 2011. Sadly, since the posting of this blog, David lost his battle with cancer, but his family would like his memory to live on through these stories as a source of inspiration and information to others. 

Read other posts by Ryan:

Our First Brain Tumor: Early Lessons Learned (September 2012) 
Adjusting to the New Normal (November 2012)
Back to Work: Coping With Cancer in the Workplace (January 2013)
Traveling With Cancer (January 2013)
What Should Siblings Do in the Face of Cancer? (February 2013)