Students with Cancer: Returning to School after Treatment

Graduation cap and diploma on a stack of books

I was diagnosed with cancer in the middle of my college career. Since then, I have relapsed three times. After treatment, it’s always really difficult to return to a normal routine.

My biggest obstacles are fatigue, pain, and difficulty remembering things. Other issues include immobility, infection risk, anxiety and self-esteem. These are all common side effects for cancer patients, but especially challenging for adolescent and young adult students trying to get through classes.

Depending on your diagnosis and treatment, it could take a couple of days or a couple of years to integrate back into the classroom. I understand the want and need to return to school as soon as possible because it provides a sense of normalcy and control. We all tend to identify ourselves with school, work, friends, hobbies, social interests, etc. It boosts self-confidence to do what we love and offers an escape from the world of cancer.

However, try to be patient with your body and don’t rush recovery. It’s important to give yourself the proper time to heal. Always make sure you are cleared by your physician before you return to school. When you do return, you should consider returning slowly. Go to school part time if possible. This will allow you to gradually adjust to your routine and effectively cope with any lingering side effects from treatment. I did not follow this advice and it was very difficult at times. In hindsight, I should have listened to all those nurses around me telling me to take my time and come back slowly.

Also remember that who you tell about your treatment amongst your peers is up to you. Your school should never share your health information. Your friends’ reaction to your diagnosis will vary. Decide ahead of time what you are willing to share. People will ask about your health and inquire about your treatment, so it helps to be prepared with a response that you feel comfortable with.

If returning to college, be sure to update your health records and stop by your school's health and wellness center. Most campuses have nurses and doctors on staff who can help with some of the obstacles mentioned earlier.

Most importantly, don’t let cancer stop you from pursuing your education or achieving your dreams. There are several resources to help you cope with the stress, workload and financial burden of school. Here are a few useful resources: