College and Cancer: Tips from a Student Survivor

“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.

In previous years, I have 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.

By Catherine MacLean

Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Blood and Cancer Disorders Center School Liaison Program will present College Bound: Transitioning from the Cancer Experience to College Campus on Thurs., Oct. 9, 2014, from 5:45 p.m. – 9 p.m. in Dana-Farber’s Yawkey Center Dining Pavilion. Registration is required. Please RSVP by October 3 to 617-632-5909 or email 

2 thoughts on “College and Cancer: Tips from a Student Survivor”

  1. Awesome reading. Reading your fears and feelings, I know those feelings all to well. And I am not the survivor, my daughter is. She had a transplant at 20 months, and it changed our lives so completely. All your questions? I ask myself them daily, and remember those that didn’t win their battles. I worry that all of the decisions we made were really the right ones. People don’t realize how much you go through after a transplant, it’s not over once they are ”cured”. I’ve been calling it ”treading water”, and it gets tiring. Emotionally exhausting. But we are just grateful for every day we have together and look forward to the future.I’m grateful you are also a survivor, and wish you the best of luck and happiness always!

  2. I couldn’t agree anymore with your perspective on this matter, Catherine. Having been diagnosed with cancer, and having to receive treatment in the midst of my adolescence, it’s needless to say that cancer impacted my life on a large scale. I felt robbed; I was missing out on my teenager hood, all aspects of it. After I returned to school, six months later, everything had changed. While I understood how others viewed me, commonly referring to me as the “cancer kid”, it was an extremely rough transition when my friends would exclude from their weekend agendas. At the time, I was bitter about it, though I understand that they were afraid to expose me to the recreational drugs and illegal consumption of alcohol that they took part in. Having cancer at the prime of my teenage years had a true impact on the shaping of my character; being more mature, aware of my social surroundings, and more compassionate than my counterparts, proved to be difficult at time (and still does). In addition, I can completely relate with the challenge of not letting my experience with cancer define me; the experience was life-changing, allowing me to discover my true passion, which coincidently is linked to public health and humanitarian relief. Much of what I do on my free time, especially the activities that I engaged myself in during my undergraduate years, were very much related to education, advocacy, and fundraising for children’s cancer research. Having to deal with the ignorance of my peers, the media and popular culture can be discouraging at times. Cancer transformed my life in so many ways, including my susceptibly to contracting bacterial and viral infection; friends joke all the time about my weak immunity and how I’m always getting sick. It goes without saying that the scars will always be me; from the permanent body marks near where my port used to be, to the emotional and psychological side effects that continue to intermittently affect me. Just because we’re so-called in remission and cancer free does not mean that the suffering is done. I believe that there will always be emotions attached to the experience, as there should be with any life altering experience. It is our job to attack these emotions as they occur, and not let them build up inside of us. Thank you for sharing this article, again!

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