College and Cancer: Tips from a Student Survivor

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By Catherine MacLean

“Why is this coming up now?”

“It’s been 10 years. I should be over this already.”

“Why is this happening to me? All of the other survivors I know seem fine.”

These thoughts preoccupied me during the transition from high school to college. It had been 10 years since my successful bone marrow transplant for aplastic anemia and my health was excellent.

I was a successful student who participated actively in my community. I had left behind the difficult years spent living with a life-threatening illness as a child, when I was treated at Dana-Farber’s Jimmy Fund Clinic. [Aplastic anemia is not cancer, but its treatments and long-term effects are very similar.]

But in other ways, those years were still with me, and as I started contemplating my next steps after high school, I was forced to evaluate who I was, which led directly to the question of just how much of an impact my illness had on me. I didn’t want it to define me, but trying to deny its effect was impossible.

My mind was full of questions: Why did I survive, when so many had not? Was I fundamentally different from my peers because of what happened to me? Was that gap bridgeable? Who should I tell about my illness, and when?

Catherine MacLean on a kayaking trip with other cancer survivors.

Since the media seemed to convey that survivors left their illnesses behind after they were cured, I thought my feelings were abnormal, when they were just the opposite. It is incredibly common for survivors of childhood cancer and serious blood disorders to notice identity issues, feelings of loss, and other psychosocial effects from their illness and treatment when they are on the cusp of adulthood, regardless of how removed the experience may seem.

While my feelings of uncertainty might not have been preventable, the shame certainly was. Psychosocial late effects among childhood survivors are all too often swept under the rug. We as a cancer and blood disorder community need to talk about these issues.

This month, for the second consecutive year, I made a presentation about survivorship and transitioning to college as a part of College Night, presented by the School Liaison Program at Dana Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center. Some of the tips I shared with other survivors and current patients included:

  • Talk over your feelings and concerns about the college transition with family and friends.
  • Discuss what you are feeling with your doctor.
  • Don’t be afraid to seek counseling from your school or elsewhere.
  • Tap the right resources for you — whether emotional, academic, or physical — to pursue a higher quality of life and feel better through the transition.

The feedback I have received from these events reaffirms that I am not alone. I hope that my words might help other survivors and patients feel more comfortable as they make the transition from high school to college and adulthood.

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