Advocating Beyond Adversity: The Importance of Education and Resilience in a Cancerous Journey

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As a doctoral candidate at the University of Florida in Educational Leadership, I would have considered myself a traditional student. I volunteered in community equitable education missions, served as a graduate research assistant, and spent semesters engaging in fellowships and internships to better prepare myself for life after graduation. In the Fall of 2023, I celebrated my early graduation from my Masters program and was close to finishing my doctoral coursework. In early Spring 2023, I had passed my qualifying exams toward my dissertation, celebrating the accomplishment when things changed, altering the trajectory of my life, including my educational goals and aspirations. 

On May 5, 2023, at 24 years old, I was diagnosed with Stage 2 Triple Negative Breast Cancer. Despite my best efforts, most of my life came to an immediate halt as I had to proceed with chemotherapy treatments and surgery. However, I continued my education by attending classes virtually. While traveling to one of my treatments, three hours away, my mom asked the hypothetical question of what a young adult in college was supposed to do if they did not have family or financial support. I began thinking that in comparison to others, I was lucky: I was on scholarship, so tuition was never a burden; I could move in with my family, who lived a few hours away from my college town; and we were financially stable enough to afford my treatments through reliable insurance. Despite these blessings, I felt that my university did not know what to do with me in regards to support and feeling isolated from the academic world. 

After long hours online, I realized support and research for college students going through this diagnosis was minimal. I quickly changed my dissertation topic: exploring the narratives of four young adults who were diagnosed with cancer while pursuing higher education at an American public university or four-year college; specifically, the study aims to use the voices of college students diagnosed with cancer (CSDCs) to understand how public American universities and colleges successfully or ineffectively meet the needs of these students. This work has also inspired me to go beyond research and expand my advocacy (which has included sharing my story with Gilead Sciences and serving as an advocate for Touch: Black Breast Care Alliance) by beginning my first non-profit, CancerCollege. The mission of my aspiring organization is to support young adults in pursuing their higher education degrees while overcoming the challenges of cancer treatment by providing community, fellowship, and resources.

While I aspire to fulfill my vocational goal of becoming an education policy analyst for a non-profit specializing in educational equity, overall, my experience with cancer has ignited a passion for advocacy and research within young adult cancer. Through my research and advocacy efforts, I hope to amplify the voices of those who have faced similar challenges and improve support systems and policies for young adults diagnosed with cancer. I aspire for my current and future endeavors to bring change to all those affected by cancer.

By: Natalya Green