Back to education after cancer

Going back to school, college or uni after cancer treatment can be nerve-racking. We talk to a disability advisor about your rights, how to prepare, what support you can get and who to talk to.

  • Going back to school, college or uni is a big step – it’s normal to feel a mix of excitement and nerves
  • As a young person who has experienced cancer, you have rights in law which can help you get what you need in order to keep studying
  • It can be useful to talk to your teachers, tutors or friends about your cancer experience, to help them know how to help you
  • If you have been told you’re clinically extremely vulnerable, keep up to date with the latest government guidelines and talk to your place of education about keeping you safe from coronavirus

Your rights as a young person with cancer in education

As someone with cancer, you are protected by the Equality Act (England, Scotland and Wales) or the Disability Discrimination Act (Northern Ireland). You might not feel like you’re disabled, but these laws are in place to help protect and help you be able to live your life.

Lucy Robinson, a disability officer at the University of the Arts London, explains something called ‘reasonable adjustments’ and what that means for young people:

“Reasonable adjustments are changes to the environment or teaching which help you to access learning on an equal footing, such as extra time for exams, speech-to-text software or a note-taker. What you need will be individual to you.”

If you’ve got exams coming up, you might also be able to apply for various ‘access arrangements’. This can cover things like being given extra time or having someone to write for you during an exam.

You may also be able to apply for ‘extenuating or mitigating circumstances’. This can allow the exam board to consider your circumstances after your work is marked.

Lots of people apply for access arrangements and extenuating or mitigating circumstances every year, for all kinds of reasons. It can help to take some of the pressure off when you’ve had a difficult experience. It’s not a blag and it doesn’t make your mark worth any less – it’s just recognition that you’ve not been able to study as much as you’d normally be able to.

Find out more about the Equality Act from the government and reasonable adjustments from the Human Rights Commission.

Macmillan Cancer Support also have some really helpful info on reasonable adjustments (PDF), and a directory of organisations who could help you with questions.

Keeping up with studies during cancer treatment

It can help to try and keep up with some work even if you’re not able to stay at school, college or uni full-time during treatment. Doing things you’re used to doing can help you feel more positive, and so can staying in touch with your teachers, tutors and the people in your classes.

Chat to your tutors about what it’s possible for you to do, and try to avoid taking on too much and stressing yourself out. Your Teenage Cancer Trust Nurse or Youth Support Coordinator can help you plan for studying around your treatment.

Getting back to studying after cancer

Whether you used to love school or spent your lessons watching the clock, you might find yourself missing it during your cancer treatment. Your studies are a big part of your life (and social life), after all.

If you’ve been away for a while, the thought of going back might make you feel excited, or nervous, or both. But by staying in touch with your place of education, preparing for your return and not putting too much pressure on yourself, it’ll soon feel more normal again.

If you’re starting a new university or college after your cancer treatment, it can also be good to get in touch early, as there may be special resources available to you.

“Your initial plan of action when you know where you’re going to study is:

  1. “Contact your university’s disability service.
  2. “Give them written evidence of your condition.
  3. “Apply for funding for support from Disabled Students Allowance if eligible.”

Telling people about your cancer experience

You might find it helpful to chat to your school, college or uni before you go back, so you can let your teachers know how you’re doing and how they can help. If you don’t want to do this yourself, you can always ask your parents or a friend to go with you, or to go instead.

Get in touch with us as early as possible to make the most of the advice and support we can give.

Lucy Robinson, a disability advisor for University of the Arts London

You might also like to ask your teachers to talk to your class before you go back, so people have an idea of how your treatment has gone. It can help you avoid having to answer the same questions a thousand times.

Your first day back

Like a lot of things, your first day back usually seems a lot worse in your head than it actually turns out to be. You might find that some people seem a bit awkward and don’t know what to say to you. But you’ll also find that people are really happy to have you back.

You might want to arrange to meet a friend before school, if you think arriving with someone else might help you feel a bit less self-conscious.

And if you look a bit different after your treatment and are worried about how people might react, you could arrange to meet up with a few people before you go back. Try to remember, too, that everyone will get used to how you look now very quickly.

If anyone does make nasty comments, it can be hard not to take that very personally. Sometimes hurtful comments can come as a result of someone being nervous or confused about cancer. But if it carries on, let someone know – dealing with bullies isn’t something you need on your mind.

Keeping up with your studies after cancer

If you struggle to keep up with your work at first, don’t worry. You might have missed a lot.

Your treatment might have also affected your ability to concentrate, and you might feel exhausted. However you feel, your teachers will understand – and your classes will get easier as time passes. The most important thing right now is that you keep focusing on your health.

If you know you’re going to miss classes because of appointments, you could:

  • Ask a friend to take notes for you
  • Get the teacher to email you with any work you miss
  • Talk to your teacher about which work is most important, so you can focus on that.

Who to talk to about studying after cancer

If you’re worried about your studies or you’re struggling to keep up, try not to keep it to yourself. It might help to talk to:

  • Your teachers, who are there to support you as well as teach you
  • Your place of education’s disability department, if they have one
  • Your school, college or university counsellor, which might sound like a scary option, but really isn’t – it’s someone who’s trained to listen and help you deal with problems
  • Your parents, who can talk to teachers if you’d rather not and might be able to help you get extra support
  • The people taking care of you, including doctors, nurses, social workers and youth workers, who might have some helpful ideas on how to cope with studying
  • Your friends, who might be able to help you keep up, or might just be the perfect people to open up to about your feelings.

Looking for info about studying during coronavirus? Check out our coronavirus info.

Read other young people’s experiences of cancer and studying below, and through Jamie’s story from Blood Cancer UK.