How I Completed My Degree Through Cancer Treatment

I finished my classes almost two weeks ago and I’ve been reflecting on how I was able to obtain and finish my degree while going through cancer treatment.

I completed 1/4 of my undergraduate degree through cancer treatment. School is hard and stressful for anyone but school is especially hard and stressful when you receive chemotherapy three times a week on top of school.

In my first oncology appointment, when I found out the devastating news that I needed treatment, my oncologist strongly advised me to stop going to school and taking courses. She reminded me that school would always be there but I really needed to focus on getting healthy and not to mention the stress that came along with being a student was not healthy for someone receiving a terrible chemotherapy drug.

Hearing that I should stop school broke my heart more than it already was. Who was I if I wasn’t a student? I have been a student my whole life. What would I be doing with myself if I stopped school for a year? Fighting for my life didn’t seem like enough to me at the time.

But after thinking and praying about what I should do I decided that cancer wasn’t going to slow me down. It had taken too many other things from me and school wasn’t going to be one of them.

I was diagnosed with cancer in March 2015 which was almost the end of my Winter 2015 term. I completed all my classes and exams as I was processing the diagnosis and recovering from surgery. Being at school and studying with my friends and talking about anything other than the C word was the best distraction. I actually wanted to be at school and focus on my work just so I could occupy my mind.

In Spring 2015, during my induction phase of Interferon and the beginning of my maintenance phase, I completed 2 courses. I went to school for one of them twice a week and the other was an online learning class.

In Fall 2015 I decided to continue with school on a reduced course load. I figured out that I only needed 9 more courses to meet my graduation requirements so if I took 3 classes during my next fall, winter and spring terms, I would be able to graduate the following fall (2016). Even though it hurt to know that my graduation was going to be pushed off and I wouldn’t be able to graduate with my friends I eventually adjusted to the idea and it was okay with me. Although I suppose I didn’t really have any other choice.

I met with an academic advisor before I returned to school in the fall and she basically told me that nothing could be done for me and she said she would advise me to really consider whether or not I wanted to come back because these marks would always be on my transcript even if I did badly. At this point I had to reconsider what it was that I wanted to do and I felt like no one was really supporting my decision to return back to school.

I originally hated school. And I mean hated it. And before cancer I used to absolutely love school. But for me, it was really difficult to go to school, sit in class and listen to my classmates talk about going out and getting drunk and how stressed they are about a paper or over a boy or how sick they are from a cold or a flu. It was so hard for me to hold my tongue in these instances and situations. I realized right away that being at school was not what I wanted and I actually considered dropping my courses for the term because it was just too much for me. It wasn’t healthy to be around sick people when I had no immune system and walking to school, getting across campus, taking the stairs… it was all just way too much. Instead of dropping all of my classes that term I ended up dropping one of the classes I was taking at school and picked one up online and that way I only had to go to school twice a week as opposed to four times a week. It wasn’t ideal but it was better and that fall I completed 3 courses.

In winter 2016 I completed 3 more courses. I took two online learning classes which meant I only had to go to school once a week for my fourth year seminar. This was so much better for me because my energy level was so depleted at this point.

In Spring 2016 I completed my final 3 courses – all of which were elective classes because I completed all my required communication classes. Again, I took two online learning classes and one at school. The beginning of my spring 2016 term was my final 4 weeks of Interferon and I had little to no energy at this point because my body was just so sick and tired. But as I’ve recovered school was a great thing to keep me busy with my returning energy.

If I received a bad mark on a quiz, I would beat myself up, but then I would rationalize that thinking by reminding myself of the significant life altering experience I was going through at the time.

“Mikayla, do you realize that you’re stabbing yourself with a needle to inject yourself with chemotherapy THREE TIMES A WEEK while you sleep the majority of your days and feel like garbage 24/7 and are STILL doing school?!”

Yeah…that shut those thoughts off pretty quickly.

I did not receive any special treatment from my professors. My professors were aware of my situation and they were sympathetic and they told me that if I needed extensions to let them know but I never took advantage of that because I wanted to feel like a normal student as much as I could. I had three accommodations made for me throughout four terms where I didn’t have to complete a group project/presentation simply because I had no energy to meet with group members.

I’m not trying to put down my school but it really felt like I was the first ever student to face a cancer diagnosis as a student. It was bizarre. My learning coordinator was the most helpful in this process and she would check in with me and make sure I was doing okay and would advocate for me if I ever needed her to (which ended up being twice). I just feel that no one ever reached out to me to help. My school prides themselves on being accommodating to students in these situations but I’m not quite sure where those accommodations were for me… I’m not bitter but I am confused.

Looking back, I am so glad I pushed through school, even though there were times it was really difficult. Especially with chemo brain and side effects and being tired all the time.

I remember in my winter 2016 term I had an assignment to complete for my seminar and do you think I could remember one thing my professor said in class about the instructions? Nope. Nothing. Completely blank. It was like I wasn’t even in the class when he was explaining the assignment (and I was!). I had notes from what he was saying and explaining about the assignment but absolutely no recollection. Luckily my friend Britt was in that class and she helped me out. Chemo brain sucks and I plan to write about it in a future post.

School was actually the best distraction from the insanity that was happening in my life. It was an outlet to think of something different and focus my attention on something other than cancer and treatment. No one knew my story except for my friends in my classes or those I had on Facebook. But aside from that, no one knew that I was a cancer patient, no one knew that I was “the girl with cancer,” and no one knew I stabbed myself three times a week with chemotherapy. I was free to be normal.

There was a time in fall 2015 I can remember when I had to explain to a classmate why I was the only one in the class who wasn’t doing a presentation. In my seminar that semester, I did an alternative assignment from the rest of my classmates where I completed it by myself and didn’t have to stand up and give a presentation in front of my peers. I didn’t want to give a presentation because it was hard for me to stand up for 30 minutes without sitting down, my throat and mouth got dry after one minute of talking (thanks chemo), and I simply just didn’t have the energy. A classmate asked me why I didn’t do a presentation and I explained that our professor let me do something different for the assignment and he asked why and I didn’t know how to really get around the question without being blunt. “Umm…Because I’m a cancer patient,” I said. That was the end of that conversation for the rest of the three hour class.

In all honesty I made it through with a whole lot of coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. And a whole lot of praying.

I am so thankful for my education and I am so proud of myself for earning my degree. I know how important wisdom is and I’m so thankful for my knowledge.

I’m graduating with an honours bachelor of arts degree so clearly cancer didn’t hold me back too much!

My graduation only got pushed by one term and I have my convocation in October. I am so excited! I feel #StrongerThanCancer when I know that I earned my degree through fighting for my life.

My friend Beth wrote an article about me for our school newspaper last September. You can read it here.

I’ll post photos of my graduation ceremony here when it happens in October!

All the glory to Him.

2 thoughts on “How I Completed My Degree Through Cancer Treatment

  1. What a massive accomplishment. It is a totally bizarre feeling to be surrounded by peers doing and worrying about normal things while you’re having an insanely life-altering experience.


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