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Support for College Students with Cancer Resources to Help Students with Cancer & Survivors Succeed in School

Cancer does not discriminate. It doesn’t care about age, race, religion or anything else— and it certainly doesn’t care if you’re a college student. In fact, many of the 72,000 individuals between the ages of 15 and 39 diagnosed with cancer every year are students; today, it’s estimated that one of every 100 college students is a cancer survivor. The good news is that college students facing cancer can find a wealth of support, from understanding teachers to accommodations and support groups. This guide is for those trying to pursue their dream of higher education— despite their battle with the Big C.

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The Reality of Attending College with Cancer

Every cancer is different and so is every treatment. Since the effects of treatment vary, people won’t know how they will cope until they are well into their cancer treatment. Let’s consider the possible side effects that could hinder a college student’s academic success.


Fatigue is one of the top enemies of productive homework and classwork for college students. However, levels of fatigue can vary widely. One person might nap between classes and feel great, while another person might find it impossible to get out of bed. During treatment, a student might have a ‘good day’ and attend all classes, but the next day the same student struggles to stay awake.

Nausea and vomiting are common side effects from chemotherapy, but they can also be caused by other types of treatment. Nausea can be unrelenting and vomiting can be constant, in the days following a dose of harsh medicine. Obviously, this interferes with sitting in a classroom, walking around campus, or staying focused on homework.

Some changes in appearance, such as losing hair or weight, are common with cancer and its treatments. There could also be significant swelling, skin dryness or lesions, bruises that seem to appear with the slightest touch, or problems with speaking. These changes can be tough to handle, both on a physical and psychological level.

Many cancer treatments can result in forgetfulness, trouble with concentration, or even a feeling of disassociation from the rest of the world. Sometimes known as “chemo brain,” this type of foggy feeling can cause people to forget class meetings, be unable to recall what they heard in a lecture or find that focusing on a test is virtually impossible.

Balancing treatment and responsibilities at school can be difficult for students with cancer. Chemotherapy usually involves an infusion process – unless an oral chemotherapy is available for a particular cancer – which can take anywhere from 30 minutes to ten hours and may require a student to be at a treatment center. This can get in the way of school since a student may have to take time off for treatment, travel to a chemotherapy center, or take time off due to the side effects of chemo.

Students may also opt to participate in a clinical trial, which helps researchers find new ways to treat cancer and improve the quality of life for patients. These trials can require similar time and location constraints as chemo, but might not have the same insurance coverage, so students may encounter potential lodging and transportation issues.

Those diagnosed with cancer are confronting a new reality, and so are their friends. A person’s social life might change in dramatic ways during their cancer battle; for instance, they might wind up missing out on parties and gatherings because they are feeling sick. On the other hand, they might feel smothered by well-meaning friends who want to do something to make them feel better.

When a person has a cancer diagnosis, priorities might suddenly shift. It’s entirely possible for a student who was quite focused on studies to suddenly wonder if it’s worth pursuing their degree, especially if they are facing unfavorable odds. On the other hand, a student might find renewed vigor and purpose in completing a degree, seeing it as a way of moving forward with their life and fighting cancer on every level.

Accommodations & Academic Adjustments in College

A college student must make many adjustments when faced with a cancer diagnosis and options for treatment. However, continuing their education can be much easier if they are provided with accommodations that allow them to attend classes and keep up with their grades.

How does this work? Depending upon the circumstances, a student with cancer might be considered disabled. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, state-funded institutions, such as state colleges and universities, are usually required to provide reasonable accommodations or adjustments for students with disabilities. This means you might be able to request accommodations to make college life easier.

Types of Accommodations

When it comes to academic performance, college students receiving cancer treatments are often at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Therefore, qualifying students are eligible to receive reasonable accommodations to assist in learning. Here are some accommodations an eligible cancer student could potentially receive.

Assignment deadline adjustments

Students will often need additional time to complete class assignments. This can be the result of several reasons, such as being away from school to obtain treatment or needing additional time to complete school work due to the effects of treatments.

Access to auxiliary aids

Students may have trouble studying, paying attention or absorbing the information provided by their course professor. Others might suffer from more extreme side effects, such as loss of vision or hearing. To accommodate these challenges, special tools or devices may be necessary to allow the student to receive the educational benefit from a class. Examples include audio recorders, talking calculators and assistive listening devices.

Special testing arrangements

Trouble with concentration and memory issues are common among those receiving cancer treatments. Therefore, these students may be eligible for extended time to complete a test and access to low-distraction areas in which to take exams.

On-campus transportation services

Physical weakness is a common challenge during cancer treatment. When it’s tough to simply walk down a hallway, a flight of stairs might seem impossible; crossing a quad to go from one building to another might feel like a thousand miles. To ease this burden, a school may provide a vehicle and driver to help a student travel to and from their on-campus classes.

Flexible scheduling for class requirements

As a result of missed classes or extra time needed to complete assignments, students may not be able to meet a given deadline. Professors can accommodate these students by providing deadline extensions on a case-by-case basis.

Distance learning options

Students who must be away from class for an extended period of time may be able to use the school’s online learning tools. This can allow them to continue with their course studies while off campus. This will work especially well for those schools that offer the exact same courses to traditional students as they do to online students.

Academic assistance

A school may help a disabled student by providing someone to help them with their coursework. For example, if a student must miss a class for treatment, a fellow classmate could be allowed to get an extra copy of the handouts and any other course materials the student would have been otherwise unable to obtain in a timely fashion.

Modification of classroom temperature.

Hot flashes or chills are a common side effect for those receiving cancer treatments. Given how uncomfortable this can become, a professor might be willing to raise or lower the temperature in a classroom. This can make learning much easier when a student is struggling with regulating their own internal temperature.

How to Receive Accommodations

If you believe you’re entitled to accommodations from the school, you should notify the appropriate school official. You’ll be expected to provide the necessary information to support the accommodation request and detail the kind of assistance necessary. While the exact process for requesting the accommodation may vary, the following list of steps provides a good general set of guidelines.

Identify the appropriate school contact

This may be a professor, a student body representative, a school administrative officer or an ADA or Section 504 coordinator, who ensures that college programs are following laws and regulations relating to students with disabilities. You may have to ask around to find the appropriate contact, as not all schools will have an employee dedicated to receiving and processing accommodation requests.

Promptly send the accommodation request

Once the appropriate school representative has been identified, submit your request for accommodations in writing. In this request, you should explain the disability, how the disability hinders your ability to learn in school, list the requested accommodations and explain why the accommodations are necessary. Make this request as soon as possible because schools may need time to provide or arrange the accommodation. Remember, a request for accommodations must be reasonable, which includes providing the school reasonable time to comply.

Compile and submit documentation

The school may request documentary proof of the diagnosis, as well as medical records and reports explaining the necessity of the specific accommodation. The exact proof required will depend on the school’s specific rules and policies. Try not to get upset about this request; the school isn’t suggesting you don’t have cancer! They are simply following the laws and regulations that help ensure you get what you need.

Online Learning Resources for Students with Cancer

Given the difficulties that those with cancer can face, college students might find it impossible to attend courses on campus. This is where online learning comes in. Students who need a very flexible schedule in order to handle the ups and downs of cancer treatment can find it with online degree programs.

Why is online learning a good option for students with cancer?

The flexibility of online learning will depend on the specific arrangement of the online program, but online courses generally allow students to complete the course requirements from anywhere there is an internet connection. Those taking the courses can complete them on a schedule of their choosing as long as specific deadlines are met. This flexibility is extremely helpful when students must be away from campus for extended periods of time to receive treatments or recuperate from surgeries. For students who simply aren’t physically able to attend class on campus or must stay close to their treatment facilities, distance learning provides a way to attend the school of their choice.

What academic resources are available online for students with cancer?

Besides formal online courses and programs, students with cancer also have a variety of online resources, such as massively open online courses (MOOCs), to help them study and provide lessons and tutorials about academic subjects. Some of these provide relatively basic lessons, such as the Khan Academy, Patrick JMT and MathBFF channels on YouTube. Other resources provide much more comprehensive study and advanced learning of the intensity and quality to actually serve as online lessons for some schools’ distance learning programs. Examples of these more advanced MOOCs include Coursera, Udacity and edX.

How can students find fully online learning programs?

Today, fully online degrees are widespread, and the level of education has greatly improved. Now there is no difference between a degree obtained completely online versus one received by taking classes on-campus. This means prospective students looking for a fully online program can go to a school’s website and expect to find at least a few degree offerings that fit their needs. Those less set on a specific school can get more information by checking out the following link to learn more about online degrees.

Find more information on online degree programs

Support Groups On- and Off-Campus

Those facing cancer might feel quite alone in their struggle, especially if they are on a campus filled with healthy, enthusiastic students. Talking through their situation and engaging with those who have been in a similar position can be a huge help to those who feel a little lost. Support groups for cancer patients provide a safe haven for those who want to talk about their ordeal with others who truly understand what it’s like to go through it. Numerous resources exist, both on and off campus, that can be a great boost to the self-esteem and morale of students with cancer.

On-Campus Support Resources

Counseling centers

College is a challenging time for many individuals—add in a life-threatening illness and the challenges are multiplied dramatically. Many face emotional challenges they aren’t ready to handle, such as homesickness, academic worries and social pressures, on top of concerns about medicines, health insurance and more. To help students maintain their mental health, most colleges and universities offer counseling services. Keep in mind these services aren’t limited to “average” college problems, and can help students work through a variety of challenges, including dealing with cancer.

Disability centers

Some schools have specific departments devoted to helping students deal with disabilities, such as those that are the result of cancer. These disability centers will help guide students through the disability accommodation request process and provide assistance to allow disabled students to make the most of their college education.

Cancer support groups

While these support groups may be commonly available off-campus, it’s convenient to have a support group that run by the school, as it’s probably located on campus and easier to access. But most importantly, school affiliated support groups are likely to be filled with fellow students who have overcome cancer or are currently fighting it. The ability to connect with fellow college students can provide a level of support other support groups may be unable to offer. Three good examples of cancer support groups partnered with schools include Boston University School of Medicine’s Cancer Support Groups, University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus Blood Cancer & BMT Program Cancer Support Groups and Gustavus Adolphus College’s Campus Cancer Support Group.

Campus advocacy groups

Many college students are involved in charitable and volunteer work, including campus advocacy. These advocacy organizations promote awareness, raise money and provide support for certain causes, including cancer. One such notable advocacy group is the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network’s Colleges Against Cancer. From a big picture perspective, these advocacy groups promote laws and policies that aim to help prevent cancer. But for students in the fight for their life, these groups can provide a way to go to battle on other levels. These organizations can also provide emotional support to those who have a loved one suffering from cancer.

Online support communities

The internet provides an expansive opportunity to find support when dealing with cancer. With so many people having access to the web, it’s easy to find others in similar situations. Many of these communities are based around a message board, such as the American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network, Springboard Beyond Cancer, and the Stupid Cancer Community. There are also unique websites, such as Caring Bridge, that provide an online platform for cancer patients to receive support from their friends and family members online.

Community cancer support groups

Students who prefer support from in-person interactions also have a number of options available. There are dozens, if not hundreds of cancer support websites that provide search tools or databases, so individuals can find a cancer support community close to them. One such tool is the American Cancers Society’s Search for Resources.

Patient lodging programs

Patients in cancer treatment must sometimes travel to a destination far from home or school. These treatments typically last more than a single day, so patients and the loved ones who accompany them must find ways to live during treatment. These costs, especially those that have to do with lodging, can quickly rise to unmanageable levels. As a result, special programs are in place, such as the American Cancer Society’s Patient Lodging Programs, to provide free or reduced-cost living arrangements for cancer patients and their caregivers.

Rides to treatment

Those receiving cancer treatments, especially chemotherapy, are often physically unable to safely drive themselves to and from treatment. And other patients simply don’t have the financial ability to travel long distances to receive certain treatments. Therefore, a number of organizations exist to meet these transportation needs, including the Corporate Angel Network, Angel Flight and the American Cancer Society’s Road to Recovery program.

Help with appearance-related side effects of treatment

The side effects of cancer treatment can be physically devastating. Some treatments drastically alter the physical appearance of a patient, such as losing their hair, losing a great deal of weight, and much more. Recognizing the importance of having a positive self-image and its effect on overall health, several organizations work to help patients manage the side effects that alter their appearance. One such organization is Look Good Feel Better.

College After Cancer

Not all cancer patients can attend college while battling cancer. As a consequence, many have to put their college education on hold while they tackle all that surviving cancer entails. Fortunately, many of these patients win their battle and choose to continue their education. They enter college once treatment is complete, or at least after getting a handle on their disease. Here are some helpful pointers for those who have fought a hard battle and are now ready to engage in higher education.

  • Be proactive

    Before returning to school, students should plan ahead for cancer-related issues or concerns they may face while in school. As most survivors know, an “all clear” from cancer doesn’t necessarily mean the side effects of treatment will magically disappear. There is a lot of guesswork involved with young adults who have beaten cancer, so side effects after cancer can vary in severity from person to person. If the student will need accommodations in class or for taking tests, they should try to make these arrangements before starting class so as to avoid missing days or harming their GPA.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help

    Don’t be afraid to ask for additional accommodations or make other necessary requests. The truth is, many returning students might not fully understand the limitations they could face when they go back to class. For example, they might think they can walk to each class, but after the first week, they are struggling to get across campus. At that point, on-campus transportation arrangements may be helpful. Students should also consider looking into any on-campus or local support groups to provide community-based assistance and advice.

  • Inform necessary individuals

    Even if a student doesn’t anticipate the need for accommodations while in school, it’s probably a good idea to let the academic advisor or other school officials know of their medical past. This can be helpful in case of an unexpected medical emergency and may allow the school to better assist if the student should request help.

  • Be patient

    Even though someone feels well enough to enter college, that doesn’t mean they can expect to live, play and study the same way as their peers who never had to battle cancer. Students must remember not to overdo it, especially at first, and understand it may take some time before they are able to walk to class on their own or participate in intramural sports.

  • Visit the school before classes begin

    Touring the area, walking around campus and checking things out before classes begin can make the first day of school a little less stressful. For those returning to class after treatment, a pre-class visit can ease them back into the student role and inform them of any changes since they’ve been gone.

  • Be understanding

    If a student’s cancer treatment has lasted any significant period of time, they could be several years older than their freshman peers. This means that in many respects, cancer survivors will be far more mature about life and how the world works. It may be frustrating to see a fellow classmate get extremely upset about one bad quiz grade or obsess about the weekend’s party plans. Students who have dealt with cancer could very well see these problems as petty and insignificant, but it’s important to remember that most college students have never faced the kinds of hardship cancer can bring.

  • Take time to breathe

    Even with the added perspective of fighting cancer, it’s easy to get caught up in the rat race of college, where having the best social life and doing well in school may be top priorities for most. This is hard enough for students whose greatest illness in life was the flu or a broken bone in middle school. But for someone recently coming off a series of cancer treatments, this can be exhausting and intimidating. Students should feel free to take a moment to slow down and put things in perspective.

Scholarships for Students with Cancer, Cancer Survivors & Family Members

There are scholarships for practically all types of students, including those affected by cancer. Below is list of some of the scholarships or grants available to those who have cancer or have had a loved one with cancer.

Taylor Roth: My Experience Having Cancer in College

Taylor Roth is a graduate student in clinical psychology. After completing her Ph.D., she wants to work with children and families impacted by chronic illnesses. Taylor was diagnosed with brain cancer during her freshman year while attending Baylor University. Though she is still fighting the disease, it does not stop her from baking, reading, and being crafty.

What aspects of your cancer diagnosis and treatment interfered most with your educational goals, and how?

The main barrier was the fact that my neuro-oncologist is based in Dallas. Initially, making trips to and from Dallas took time, and I missed a lot of class. Though things have leveled out, and my doctor is the greatest human being ever, I can’t simply find an equivalent doctor wherever I go.

On a different note, I also struggled with disclosure. Who do I tell? How much should I reveal? I was very afraid of being treated differently and being forced to change my educational plans if I told, but this situation was impacting my work, so I felt like I had to address it somehow. It’s very tricky to navigate between what needs to be known and keeping things private. This was probably the biggest emotional stressor.

How did your school accommodate your needs during the worst of it?

Getting accommodations was difficult; the administration and faculties at both my undergrad and graduate schools wanted to help, but due to the unique nature of my circumstances, they didn’t know how. Eventually, I secured reserved handicap parking and limited class hours. I also have meetings with professors if there are specifics for a class that need to be addressed.

Are there any support groups you would recommend for students dealing with a cancer diagnosis and treatment?

Unfortunately, both my undergraduate and graduate institutions lack a support group for students with chronic illnesses (though I’m sure most schools don’t have this). I received counseling services, but for community and to reach those with a shared experience, I turned to the internet. I really like Stupid Cancer.

What advice would you give for other students going through this journey?

On a practical level, make sure to register with the appropriate offices. This is often the only way to receive accommodations, and professors generally won’t provide help if you’re not officially registered.

Advocate for yourself! People want to help, but they can’t if you don’t tell them what you need. You know yourself and your journey best. Don’t let other people decide things for you.

And finally…how are you doing now?

Overall, pretty well! I completed radiation this summer and have monthly chemo doses, so I’m not out of the woods yet. Over the past few months, I’ve had to re-learn how to walk. But thanks to some amazing physical therapists, I’m getting there! I have no doubt that I’ll continue to strengthen and will eventually become “Dr. Roth.”

Additional Resources

College students with cancer who need additional information, including paying for college, understanding rights and coping with their diagnosis, can take a look at the following list of resources.

  • American Cancer Society (ACS)

    The ACS is one of the premier organizations fighting cancer and helping those suffering from it. The website has a very comprehensive treatment and support section.

  • Cancer and Careers

    This site provides expert information tools and advice to individuals with cancexr so they may succeed at work. Much of the advice can also apply to the classroom.

  • Cancer Financial Assistance Coalition (CFAC)

    The CFAC is an alliance of organizations that work together to provide any type of financial assistance a cancer patient may require.

  • CourseBuffet

    Allows students to search for free MOOCs offered by hundreds of colleges and universities.

  • Disability Rights Legal Center

    The Disability Rights Legal Center is a charitable organization that works to promote and protect the civil rights of those with disabilities and those fighting cancer.

  • National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health

    Offers many informational resources for those coping with cancer, including day-to-day living, dealing with self-image issues and finding support services.

  • Pediatric Oncology Resource Center

    Provides a wide range of information to those who have or have had childhood cancer, as well as their family and friends. The website contains a comprehensive list of scholarships for childhood cancer survivors.

  • US Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights

    The Office of Civil Rights has the job of enforcing the civil rights of students, including an online complaint form and an explanation of rights.