My second year of graduate school did not go as planned.
The summer after my first year in UNO’s MFA program for creative writing I found out that I had stage IV colorectal cancer. As devastating as those words “You have cancer” were, my diagnosis was wrapped in my family history; I was diagnosed with the same cancer that took my dad’s life in 2001. While my cohort was enjoying their summer break that year I was having brain surgery (the cancer spread to my brain) and mentally preparing myself for two semester’s worth of chemotherapy, radiation and more surgery.
A year and a half after my dad died my grandma died from pancreatic cancer, which led to me dropping out of school. Determined not to let cancer control my life for a second time, I buckled down and managed it all: a full-time course load, a graduate assistant position and cancer treatment. After surgery in the spring 2018 semester I attained NED status (no evidence of disease) for several months and enjoyed a cancer-free summer. Then, I was re-diagnosed this past November. My cancer spread to my lungs, which sent me back to juggling chemo and classes. Balancing chemo and coursework isn’t easy, but here is how I manage to do it.
Plan ahead: Side effects from chemo treatment are unpredictable. I have chemo treatments every other week, so I make sure to turn my assignments ahead of time in case I miss a class. It’s easier to work ahead then playing catch up and eases the stress of making assignment due dates.
I also requested the reading lists for my literature classes ahead of time and read the books during summer break. When it came time for class discussion, all I had to do was revisit the works we were reading instead of trying to cram chapters in when I wasn’t feeling my best.
Talk to your teachers: Let your professors know your circumstance as soon as you feel comfortable. It’s better to let them know what you’re dealing with so they can accommodate you. You may consider talking to UNO’s Office of Disabilities as another layer of protection to ensure your needs will be taken into account.
Consult a social worker: The social worker at my hospital was able to tell me about programs that helped me pay my bills. You can do research on programs on your own, but utilizing a social worker’s expertise will help cut down time. Be sure to ask about scholarships for cancer patients and survivors.
Stay social: When I felt good enough to socialize I would go out with my classmates. Don’t put your entire life on hold because you have cancer. Sometimes it is good to engage in your regular activities; it will provide you with a sense of normalcy and help get your mind off the Big C.
Sleep and exercise: Pulling an all-nighter isn’t an option for cancer patients. We need our rest in order to remain sharp in class. Exercise can be a mood lifter and also help you maintain strength and de-stress.
Know your options: If you need to drop a course, take a semester off, or switch to part-time look at all of your options beforehand; your financial aid might be affected. For example, sitting out a semester wasn’t an option for me. I’m on UNO’s student health insurance plan and my GA position required me to be enrolled full-time. I could have stopped working, but I knew that taking on student loan debt on top of my medical debt would be more stress in the long run.
Seek out a therapist: I sought out a psychologist that specializes in oncology through my hospital’s cancer center. UNO also has counseling services for students.
Don’t shoulder the burden: Every cancer patient (and survivor!) needs a caregiver in their life. Whether that’s someone to cook your meals, drive you to treatment or deal with insurance claims on your behalf, you don’t have to go through cancer alone. There are also numerous free or low cost services, such as ride shares, that you may consider.
Reach out to classmates: When I was first diagnosed I emailed a few of my classmates ahead of time to let them know what I was going through. This helped cut down on having to retraumatize myself by telling my story over and over again as well as ease the awkward “So I have cancer” conversations.
Be visible (or not): Don’t be afraid to walk around campus with your bald head on display. Don’t be afraid to talk about what you’re going through with other students. Some cancer patients choose to keep quiet about what they’re going through, others become advocates and are vocal about their needs. Either way, don’t feel like you have to keep your diagnosis a secret.
Cancer Association of Greater New Orleans (CAGNO) www.cagno.org
American Cancer Society www.cancer.org
scholarships.com (search for cancer scholarships)
UNO Office of Disabilities www.uno.edu/disability-services
UNO Counseling Services https://www.uno.edu/counseling-services
If you are a cancer patient or survivor or know someone who needs help feel free to reach out to me at [email protected].