September 06, 2023

Back To School With Cancer?

By Jackie B-F

“What’s that scar on your neck?” I wasn’t even 20-minutes into the first day of orientation for my Master’s program and my scar had already been noticed. I have been debating the whole summer about how to disclose my cancer at my new school. I am proud of my diagnosis and I am happy to talk about my experiences with cancer, but I didn’t want cancer to be my first introduction to students and faculty. I’ve thought about some ways I can disclose my cancer at school:

I can choose to only tell some of truth. When asked about my scar at orientation, I was caught off guard and told the student about my cancer diagnosis. However, there are other ways to disclose my medical conditions that don’t involve the “C-word.” I could have said, “I had surgery” and left the conversation at that.

A wardrobe change might also be in order. I’ve accumulated a lot of cancer shirts and bracelets since being diagnosed, and I wear them proudly! However, I’ve chosen to set them aside for at least the first few weeks of school. That way I can disclose my diagnosis in a more organic way and not because my shirt says so.

I may not want to disclose to everyone at school, but letting my professors know can be very helpful. If I end up missing a lot of class, they deserve to know why, and some professors may be willing to help me catch up during their office hours. Professors are often supportive and can be a good advocate. I’ll probably let my professors know within the first few weeks of classes.

Ultimately, I have to do what feels right for me, and remember that I was accepted into school for my smarts – not my cancer.

We are asked to disclose our cancer in a variety of settings. How do you choose who to tell and who not to tell? Have you ever had to make up excuses on the spot to cover up your cancer?

To learn more about disclosure at school, your legal rights, and how the office of student disabilities can help you, read the book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Kelly Says:
    September 6th, 2011 at 2:21 PM

    I got the “C” news one year before I was supposed to graduate with my undergrad. I feel the way everyone looked at me changed. I was such a good student, involved with extracuricular stuff left and right, and had scholarships and research projects. I was confused about my diagnosis and wanted to blame someone or something, so I began questioning the safety of some of the labs I’ve worked in. Ultimately, everyone ended up treating me like I never deserved to be there. Years later, my emails barely get noticed by these people, mainly old professors. My friends are another story, mostly they didn’t know what to say to me. So most chose to say nothing. It really hurt, but I know now who my true friends are. I now disclose my cancer to anyone who sees or asks about my scar. The more aware others become, the less of fight we all face in the future. Standing your ground in whatever you believe will pull you threw your struggle, as we all go through it differently.

  2. Christina Says:
    September 6th, 2011 at 3:46 PM

    I got news of my stage 3 diagnosis in the middle of my grad program. I had to begin treatment immediately, but my professors were all very understanding and accomodating. I returned one month after I finished my last chemo and went back to my TA position as well.
    As far as my fellow students, they all reacted differently, some not knowing what to do or say, some ignoring it entirely.
    The major negative I experienced through the school+cancer experience was my medical care initially. The student center clinics really are not equipped with the knowledge and ability to support cancer diagnosis for 20-somethings. The nurse practitioner who saw me literally opened up a text book to describe my cancer when I first found out!

  3. Jackie B-F Says:
    September 6th, 2011 at 8:25 PM

    KELLY - I agree that, unfortunately, a lot of people don’t know what to say. I was a social work major in undergrad (and when I was diagnosed) so was in a supportive community, but nonetheless, a lot of people were at a loss. Good for you for speaking openly about your cancer! It’s so important to create awareness, especially among young adult cancer.

    CHRISTINA - I too was treated at my school’s student health center, and they are definitely unable to deal with a cancer diagnosis! My primary care doctor told me, “We can treat colds and STIs, but not cancer.” Although I liked (most) of my providers, I wasn’t always confident in the care I was getting. Did you end up seeking care elsewhere?

  4. denise Says:
    September 13th, 2011 at 3:31 PM

    Hi, I am int he same dilemma as I dont know if I should hide the thyroid scar or not. Necklaces on the scar makes it sore and I cant be wearing scarves all the time.
    Please, what should I say or what should I do?
    Thanks for your wonderful post

  5. denise Says:
    September 13th, 2011 at 3:33 PM

    I am a 29 y old teacher of young adults intheir twenties mainly.

  6. Jackie B-F Says:
    September 17th, 2011 at 7:58 PM

    Hi Denise,

    Sorry for the delayed response to your post. I would say do what feels right for you. If you’re comfortable showing your scar, show it off! For me, I have a hard time wearing necklaces/scarves frequently because of neuropathy and pain caused by my thyroidectomy. Many people don’t ask about the scar, and you can come up with a quick response for explaining it if you need to. For example, “I had surgery, but I’m doing better now.”

    Let us know what works for you and good luck!

  7. thyca Says:
    February 9th, 2013 at 4:43 PM

    Hi Denise,
    I am also a 28 year old teacher, but of teenagers. I was afraid it would become an issue due to immaturity of the students. I wear scarves that hide my scar about half the time, and nobody has said anything. Among young adults at the university, nobody has said anything, and I go without covering my scar most of the time when around adults. I got a lot of thin silk scarves so they don’t bother my neck or make me too hot.
    Good luck!

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