Grad school during/after cancer?


How many of us here are currently in grad school? I'd love to hear your experiences adjusting to it, especially if you suffer from "chemobrain" and/or fatigue.

I finished treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma in May this year, and was all set to start grad school in Sept this year. THese plans had been made pre-cancer. And of course, finishing treatment, you're all raring to go and "get on with your life."

Uh ...

But closer to the admission date, I began freaking out a little, so I postponed my admission to January 2012. It's a PhD programme so the entry dates are flexible.

I'm still a little scared because I've been out of action for almost a year with the diagnosis and treatment. I'm not sure if I'm ready for it, or if I'll ever be ready for it. Perhaps it's a case of pure inertia and it's just a matter of getting the ol' machine going again.

Would love to hear anyone's experience going back to school!


  • 12 Comments sorted by Votes Date Added
  • Hi,
    I'm trying to do a PhD thesis while fighting cancer... For a while I could manage both, but after my 4th surgery and 2nd radiation cycle with chemo to the neck and throat area I completely fell apart. I couldn't read anything, couldn't concentrate and basically I didn't want to do it anymore. I didn't see the point of pursuing a PhD when I couldn't have any work plan, I couldn't even visualize I was going to be there to finish my thesis.

    It took me months after the end of treatments to get back on my feet again, and to realize that I have to work on my thesis for the sake of me. I still don't really believe I'm going to be able to produce great work, or that I'm going to be here one year from now to continue my work, let alone finish it. I choose not to think about the future. I work on my thesis because I'm still curious about my topic, because I like going to the library and read, because that gives me a purpose in my daily life, and specially to have something to motivate me get up in the morning and go do it. I also try not to worry about my funding (that is going to finish a year from now)... and then I will be poor, jobless, and probably homeless as well, but hey, that also means I will still be alive! ;)

    Good luck and never quit, going to school keeps you sharp!
  • I was in the middle of my master's program when I got diagnosed. my physical recovery allowed me to start doing work less than a year post diagnosis, but I haven't been able to go at things full force until just now, 2 1/2yrs post diagnosis. It took me an additional year and a half before I could get myself onto a normal sleep schedule

    it was slow going for the year and a half that it took to get there, and I had my share of setbacks. I got so stressed at one point that I wound up with a case of shingles around final exams time at the end of the fall term last year.

    be aware that it may take you awhile before you can really dive into a heavy workload again. people do it - there's a grad students group on Planet Cancer you might consider joining for more feedback - but it's hard. harder than it is for most.
  • Hey! Thanks for the reply. I saw your earlier posts in the thread about resuming college where you outlined your experience.

    I'll look into joining the PC grad students group. Didn't know there was one. Looks like I'll need support.

    I'll also probably need to be 101% transparent about my condition with the university. It gets tricky because of funding and milestones I'm supposed to complete.

    Thinking about all this, the treatment phase seems so much easier. It was uncomfortable and unpleasant, but at least I knew where I was headed, and somewhat predictable. Post-treatment, back to reality, you're suddenly expected to be responsible/perform as you were/did, but you're no longer the old you, even though you probably look very much so.
  • I was diagnosed in the middle of summer 2010 when I was all set to graduate that December. Fortunately I only ended up getting surgery and I opted out of further surgery and interferon so I can't say anything about lasting physical effects from treatment since I was at 100% physically when I went back to school. But just dealing with the whole thing mentally and adjusting back to the school routine was a challenge. I had a really great adviser and professors I knew well because I had done my undergrad at the same school so they were able to bend rules for me and made everything as easy as possible for me to finish at my pace. I returned to school in November to get a head start and then officially enrolled again in January and was able to graduate last May, but I choose to stay the summer and do research work for free for my adviser to make up for how little I did during the semester because I had a hard time finding the same motivation. Anyway, hope it all works out for you!
  • Hi! I'm so glad you started this thread because I was diagnosed with brain brain in April of my senior year in college. I had just received my graduate admission letter in the mail about two months before my diagnosis. Unfortunately, I also had an accounting internship I was suppose to start in two months. It was a big hit for me because these were the two big things I had been striving for the past four years. Fortunately, my professors and employers have been very understanding and helpful.

    I'm scheduled to finish up with treatment in December and I plan on going back to start graduate school in June,
    just in time for summer 1 classes. I had wanted to go back earlier but I'm just really nervous that I won't be emotionally and physically ready for the challenge. Graduate school from what I've heard is really hard and requires a lot of work and for those reasons I want to make sure I'm fully recovered for when I return. I really hope 6 months post treatment is enough?

    My mom has mentioned changing my major from accounting to something else. My mother believes I should be less focused on school and more focused on my health. I understand why she worries but I don't want to someday look back and say why did I let cancer ruin my dreams.

    Hope all goes well for you...
  • I haven't started Grad school yet because just being sick has made it hard for me to do the whole application process. Now that I am better, I am going to try and tackle that this fall. Hopefully next fall I'll start school. My hurdle has been the GRE. It is really hard to focus on stuff and make sure I am reading it right. Also, my chemo brain affects my memory recall. I have a hard time with this in daily life. I actually get teased about it from friends/family... So, I'm concerned that even if I do get into Grad school, that it is going to be extra tough. By the time I start next year (hopefully!) it will have been over 4 years since being in school. I wish I hadn't taken that break-or had to take that long of a break.
  • I guess the hardest part is accepting the "new" you and "new normal." Especially since you can't really exercise your brain as efficiently as you can exercise the rest of your body. If you have weak leg muscles, hey, you can do targeted leg exercises and you will see results within a predictable period. No such thing with mental fitness. There's no 12 week plan. Grad's school hard, it's going to be even harder with the late effects of chemo, and frankly, there's not much you can do about it. Maybe brain exercises, but just because you do Suduko everyday doesn't mean your brain's gonna be proportionately sharper. THere's a sense of helplessness.

    With chemobrain, I feel like I'm an athlete who's now developed a chronic joint problem. I can sitll compete, but it'll be that much tougher, and that much more painful. Is it worth it?

    Of course, people can adapt. People with physical disabilities adapt. People with learning disabilities adapt.

    Sadly, I now think it really comes down to this: how badly do I want that qualification? Am I willing to adapt? Is it worth the additional strain?

    Simple questions but really tough ones to answer.
  • I started my grad class on 8/25/2011 and was diagnosed 8/30/2011. I chose to continue with my class because it made me feel normal. It makes me feel like I'm not stuck and I can still move forward with my life. I have missed 1 class and turned in 1 assignment late due to chemotherapy but the professor has been very understanding. I'm the kind of person that has to do well in all of my classes but I am learning that maybe the most important part of the class is that it makes me feel like I have something cancer can't take away from me.

    What's the worst that can happen? You decide it isn't for you and try something else.

    Although, I have a feeling you will be just fine. Pursue your dreams! If you can persevere through cancer you can persevere through school!
  • I'm not in grad school but here's a bit of my story, maybe it can help. I finished my treatments in May as well, after missing a year of undergrad. I took a summer class in July just to get my feet wet and see if I was ready to take classes again. It went pretty well so I went ahead and registered full time for the fall. A couple days before the semester was about to start I freaked out. I was extremely nervous and thought I was crazy for going back to full time so soon. In the end, though, I decided to just go for it and see what happens. For me, it turned out to be a good decision. So far this semester's been going well. I registered with the Services for Students with Disabilities office in case chemo brain became too much of a problem, but so far I haven't had to use any of their services. I get tired more easily than before and its difficult to focus on one thing for too long, but that's where time management comes in. Grade wise, I'm actually doing better than I was before cancer! I'm pre-med and while I was still getting treatment, I worried that I would have to change my field of study because it would be too hard to keep up. Now, however, I feel like my drive has been recharged and I'm ready for it. In the end, I guess it depends on you and how you feel. Like you said, it depends on how much you want it and are willing to work for it. It is definitely not impossible and you can do it if you try. Good luck!
  • HidoGirl;5328 said:

    Although, I have a feeling you will be just fine. Pursue your dreams! If you can persevere through cancer you can persevere through school!
    Love it and totally agree!
  • Make sure the people in charge of your assistantships and stuff understand what you're going through. I just found out this evening that I forgot to cover a lecture for my professor. I've been a little stressed and immersing myself in my work to meet a deadline, and that's a recipe for me to completely forget it (even though the calendar entry is staring me in the face).
  • Hi,

    I think it really depends on how demanding your treatment is and how hard the side effects hit you. I was dx'd with thyroid cancer about 3 months before the end of my first year of med school. I was totally floundering psychologically, but somehow managed to hold my grades steady. I managed to schedule my surgery around class, and that worked out fine. I worked in a lab over summer and that was a lot more flexible, so I did radioiodine at that point. I was affected by drug shortages so had to go a slightly more side-effect laden route for radiation. The treatment I did does have significant mental side effects - I found that what worked for me was to figure out when during the day my "good" hours were (early in the morning) and just make sure I did any brainwork during those hours so that I could rest during less productive times. Of course, this is a best case scenario and thyroid cancer treatment definitely doesn't suck as much as many other cancers - but it is possible to pull off.

    I will say this though: I was a zombie. If you'd asked me during those months how I was, I would have told you I was fine, and I honestly believed that. But now I look back and I looked on the outside like a functional person who was getting good grades and producing data in a lab, but I was a MESS inside. I just threw myself into class and then lab and tried not to think about cancer. Outwardly, this worked - I got promoted with my class and didn't have to go back and make up anything. Maybe that was the best thing for me, because I didn't agonize too much (and the thing about being a medical student is that you have WAYYY too much access to research data that you can obsess over) but in retrospect being in school probably hindered my emotional side because I just never really sat down to be with my feelings.

    I will second the advice from mtbikernate to let your advisor in on it - I met with mine as soon as I was dx'd and both the med school and the lab were incredibly supportive.

    Hoping things work out for you!