Going to college as a cancer survivor involves numerous preparations, including getting in contact with Student Health Services long before arrival on campus. (Hustler Multimedia/Emily Gonçalves)
Going to college as a cancer survivor involves numerous preparations, including getting in contact with Student Health Services long before arrival on campus. (Hustler Multimedia/Emily Gonçalves)

Cancer and College: Transitioning from patient to student

Preparing for college isn’t easy for anyone. It’s even harder as a cancer survivor.

September 29, 2020

(Photo courtesy Meaghan Kilner)

Registration? Check. Textbooks? Check. Laptop? Check. Referral to an oncologist at the medical center? Check. While the first three items on this list are typical for any student preparing for college, the fourth is unique to only a small subset of students: cancer survivors. My name is Meaghan Kilner, and I’m a first-year student and Hodgkin lymphoma survivor. In this column, I’ll be talking about my experience as a cancer survivor in college after spending most of high school in treatment. To start, I will give a quick overview of my life since diagnosis and talk about how cancer uniquely affects college preparation. 

During my first year of high school, I was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma in my thymus and neck. Don’t know where your thymus is? Neither did I (it’s in your chest). I spent that year getting chemo and radiation and generally just being miserable. Finally, I was told I was in remission, meaning that there was no evidence of remaining cancer. Yay! Unfortunately, my victory lap was cut short when the cancer relapsed in the fall of my sophomore year. I missed most of that year and finally finished treatment halfway through my junior year. I stepped confidently into my senior year, then promptly tripped over my own feet, literally, since chemo had caused severe nerve damage in my lower legs. Still, I managed to stumble through the year, get into college and graduate on time. And now here I am (metaphorically, since I’m studying remotely), with shoulder length hair, legs that mostly work thanks to physical therapy and a whole lot of unwarranted confidence gained from overcoming a number of challenges that seemed insurmountable.

For better or for worse, that unwarranted confidence is necessary. I sometimes wonder if I’m crazy for choosing to go to a top-tier university 700 miles away from home while still dealing with so many health complications and the fallout of missing most of high school. To make this experience possible, I’ve spent hours on the phone with Student Access Services, Student Health Services and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center (VUMC). I’ve practiced managing my medications and making doctor’s appointments. I’ve practiced walking progressively longer distances to prepare for long walks across campus. I’ve adjusted to even more preparations necessitated by being a remote student this semester. Still, I’m nervous.I never expected to have to undertake all of these preparations in order to experience a normal rite of passage. 

Though I hoped when I finished treatment I could get a fresh start without all of these challenges, that hope was just unrealistic. I fight fatigue and pain nearly every day, and that is just part of my reality, as much as my schedule of classes or extracurriculars. I’ve never met or heard of another cancer survivor who has gotten a degree in engineering (though I am sure people have), and it makes me wonder: is there a reason why I haven’t heard of a fellow cancer survivor getting a degree in engineering? Even if I am able to do so, will I have energy left to participate in extracurriculars and have a robust social life? Ultimately, will my health challenges make it too difficult to achieve my dreams of a full college experience? The truth is, I don’t know, but I’ll never know until I try.

As much as I wish I was going into college as a “normal” student and not dealing with the fallout from cancer, these experiences have given me a greater empathy for and interest in my fellow classmates. The truth is, there is no one way to prepare for college and no typical experience in the years leading up to it. Some of my classmates will be international students, dealing with all of the intricacies of student visas and going to school in a different country. Others will be first generation students, facing unique challenges of their own. A few may even be cancer survivors like me. We have all travelled along diverse paths and undergone separate preparations, so we each have unique perspectives to share. I look forward to sharing mine with you. 

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