Coping With Emotions

How to Cope as a College Student With Cancer

Navigating your cancer journey while still feeling like a normal young adult can be challenging, but these techniques — like trying to maintain a normal routine and opening up to friends — may help you.

Your college years are full of promise and exploration. You’re stepping into adulthood, taking challenging classes and building new friendships and relationships. However, if you’re a college student with cancer, it can also be a confusing and stressful time. How do you juggle doctor appointments and treatments on top of your class schedule, workload and social life?

While being a college student with cancer can be overwhelming, it is possible to balance treatment, school and life. Here are tips on how to navigate your cancer journey while still feeling like a normal young adult.

1. Maintain a Routine

Receiving a cancer diagnosis and undergoing treatment can feel like your world has turned upside down. It helps to try to maintain a sense of normalcy. “Finding ways to feel like myself — not like all these things were happening to me — was important,” said Jenn Beiner, project coordinator at UVA Cancer Center, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma as a young adult. For Beiner, that meant going to class and practicing with her swim team when she could. Hang on to activities that make you feel like you, like going to class, doing your sport and being active in clubs.

2. Focus on Your Mindset

Beiner credits her positive attitude as a key factor in how she managed her stress. “I couldn’t control if I got better, but I could control my attitude and my mindset,” she said. Her sunny outlook had an unexpected effect, too. She became a center of strength for her friends and family. “They are just as lost as you are,” she said. Focus on the things that are within your control. You’ll have good and bad days, so take each day as it comes.

3. Connect With Friends and Family

It can be scary to tell friends, family, classmates and professors about your diagnosis. How will they react? While the conversation may feel awkward, opening up to friends can provide support and relief. “The first time I told friends about my diagnosis was terrifying,” said Beiner, “but the immediate response was so positive. People wanted to be there to help.”

4. Expand Your Support Network

Support groups are a safe place to share your feelings with others going through a similar experience, helping you feel less alone. At UVA Cancer Center, young patients can connect with a peer “to learn more from a patient’s perspective and how to combat areas that are hard,” said Beiner.

There are also online support groups and apps, such as Stupid Cancer, where you can get anonymous peer support. Your medical team can also connect you with resources like dietitians, massage therapists and social workers.

5. Talk to Your Professors

It’s inevitable that you may miss some classes while undergoing treatment. Talk to your professors and be open with them about your current situation. Discuss a plan for managing your class responsibilities and staying on track. If necessary, universities often allow students to take a medical leave of absence or offer other disability services.

Most importantly, it’s OK to ask for help — you don’t have to navigate your cancer journey alone. “It’s not a fun thing to go through, but what it’s taught me about myself, I wish everyone could have that perspective,” said Beiner. “We are so strong and resilient and can face anything!”

If you're a young adult with cancer, the most important thing is that you feel supported during and after your treatment. UVA Cancer Center offers mental and emotional support resources to help you through your journey.

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Christine Yu