Life after cancer is something worth celebrating. On the first Sunday of June, National Cancer Survivors Day offers a time to celebrate those who have survived, inspire those recently diagnosed, support families, and provide outreach to the community.
Cancer survivors face ongoing, often long-lasting hardships because of their disease. Cancer doesn’t discriminate, and it certainly doesn’t care if you’re in college. It’s estimated that 1 of every 100 college students is a cancer survivor, which is defined as anyone living with a history of cancer – from the moment of diagnosis through the remainder of life. Numerous side effects exist that could negatively affect a college student’s academic success because every cancer is different, as are the methods of treatment. Students who are managing or have managed cancer may face various obstacles that negatively affect mental and physical health, including:
Struggling with a new reality.
A student’s focus may shift with a cancer diagnosis, as some suddenly wonder if pursuing a degree is worth it anymore. This type of disillusionment with personal and academic goals is common.
Changes in social life.
Cancer doesn’t impact just one person. It can take a toll on the individual’s entire friend group. Some friends (who mean well) will try to do everything they can to make everything better, which can be overwhelming in some cases. A student may have other friends who pull away because they feel helpless or estranged.
Keeping up with academics.
Balancing school assignments during times of treatment can be difficult, especially with the varying side effects of cancer treatment. Additionally, the location of the cancer treatment may take a student away from campus or cause him or her to miss class.
Memory or concentration problems.
A side effect of cancer treatment is a condition known as “chemo brain,” which can result in forgetfulness, trouble with concentration or even a feeling of disassociation from the rest of the student population. This feeling of mental cloudiness can make it difficult to focus in class and study for tests.
Changes in body and appearance.
A common struggle is the change that occurs in cancer patients’ and survivors’ physical appearance due to losing hair or weight can have a major impact on mental health. This physical change can make students feel different, separate and isolated from their friends and family.
The physical and mental health of cancer patients needs to be addressed not only during active treatment, but also throughout the continuum of survivorship care. For cancer survivors, just like individuals without a history of cancer, physical health directly influences mental health status and overall quality of life. National Health Interview Survey suggest that cancer survivors are more than twice as likely to have disabling psychological problems compared with adults without cancer. Risk factors for poor mental health-related quality of life among cancer survivors include younger age, less education, lower income, and a greater number of noncancer medical conditions. Young and middle-aged adults who are diagnosed with cancer face additional stressors and challenges compared with those who receive cancer diagnosis at older ages. Those facing cancer might feel quite alone in their struggle, particularly on a college or university campus filled with healthy, enthusiastic students.
Many resources exist, both on and off campus, that can be a boost to the morale of students managing cancer diagnoses or living as cancer survivors.
Cancer support groups.
School-affiliated support groups are likely to be filled with both undergraduate and graduate students. Check with your campus leaders to see if a cancer support group already exists. If not, it might be time to start one. College counseling centers can help students work through a variety of challenges, including dealing with cancer. Check campus healthcare offerings to see how you or someone you know can connect with a licensed counselor or behavioral health specialist.
Online support communities.
Many online communities are based on message boards, such as American Cancer Society’s Cancer Survivors Network to provide online support 24/7 to students in need. However, always be careful not to disclose private medical information online.
Help with physical side effects of treatment.
Look Good Feel Better is an organization that recognizes the importance of having a positive self-image, as well as its effect on overall health.
Many variables factor into the quality of life for student cancer survivors, influenced by a variety of cancer- and non-cancer-related factors from the time of cancer diagnosis through long-term survivorship. The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional layers to patients’ anxiety due to being immunocompromised. Unfortunately, increased anxiety affects the immune system, which can make individuals more susceptible to illnesses. Nevertheless, the rapid progress researchers are making in cancer treatment is amazing to witness, and more than ever, it’s vital that we work to ensure cancer survivors are not forgotten once active treatment ends. Just because someone’s cancer is gone does not mean he or she is back to normal. The mental and physical effects of cancer can last a lifetime. TimelyMD provides mental health support for college students who need it. We are working to end the stigma of seeking help for mental illness and show students they are not alone and help is available.
TimelyMD is focused on supporting the health and well-being of colleges and universities, and that includes both the physical and mental health of students. We are monitoring COVID-19 as we continue to support the health and well-being of students across the country. You can learn more about our commitment to transforming healthcare in higher education here.