Going to uni with a parent who has cancer: A guide by someone who’s been through it

Spoiler alert – it’s not easy

If you’ve come to university with a parent who has recently been diagnosed with cancer or had a parent diagnosed whilst you’ve been studying, you’ll be familiar with how helpless this can make you feel. University is held up to embody everything good about adolescent life, but it’s hard to enjoy some aspects when you’ve got that constant niggling worry in the back of your head.

I went to university with a lot of undealt with baggage from my mother being diagnosed with stage 3C Ovarian Cancer, and at times I felt like this could never get any better. Throughout my studies, she got better, before being diagnosed again in my third year, so I’d like to think I’ve learned a few things to share with people going through similar situations. Here’s a few things I learnt:

Uni counselling doesn’t work

University mental health services don’t have a great reputation in most areas of how they function, but let this be what you need to hear as a student or parent reading this: university counselling doesn’t work.

At the end of the day, you should seek whatever help you need to make you feel better, and this isn’t to say that they can’t help with other issues or that your university might have better services but, at least in my experience, this felt like a situation that nobody could possibly understand unless they’d been through it themselves personally (as well as the fact that there’d be month-long waiting lists, it would be different counsellors every time etc).

If you’re not lucky enough to have good free counselling services and can’t pay, Cancer Research have some great resources for people to meet with others going through a similar experience. If this seems a bit daunting, then try talking to your family – you can’t possibly say you’re the only one who knows how it feels if you’ve got a brother/sister/cousin who is potentially feeling the same.

Cancer research fundraising – June 2015

Come to acceptance when you’re ready

A landmark moment for me was when my mum was diagnosed for the second time. The first time I isolated myself, didn’t show any emotion for months and spent as long as I could away from home. When it happened again in my third year of university, I broke down in tears to my group of very supportive friends, immediately told the university that I wouldn’t be studying for the next month and packed my bags.

Nobody has ownership of this time in your life other than you. If you can manage to stick at uni whilst your parent is ill, good for you. If you can’t, tell uni that you’re slinging the essays for a few weeks and take a trip home. If your department is as good as mine were, they’ll be understanding.

Be completely transparent with your department

On the point before, arguably the most important thing about dealing with this at university is telling the department as soon as possible, and updating them with any developments so that they can ensure you get the best care. It can seem quite awful to have to provide photocopies of doctors letters with explicit details on them, but it is only so that they can verify what help you need. Basically, you’re at university to study, so you need to let the department know when there’s something that may disrupt that.

I went to Royal Holloway and, as horrible as the university itself was in accommodating students with issues that impeded their study, the Media Arts department were incredibly supportive. Use your personal advisor as much as you can, both as someone to talk to who understands the course but as your representative.

If you have a personal advisor then use them!

Call at least once a week

It’s hard for some people to call home when they’re busy doing other things, and when you have a parent with an illness you’re either going to want to talk every day or not at all. Both are arguably bad, but don’t do what I did and go weeks to months without calling. You’ll really hate yourself for it in the future, and you paradoxically don’t realise how foolish this could turn out being if things do take a turn for the worse.

On this note, chemo can be as incredibly tiring as it can be boring, being sat for hours at a time with horrible chemicals being pumped through you and an ice-cold cap on your head. This is a good opportunity to call.

Final chemo session celebratory barbecue – April 2019

Understand it

If UK families have a bad relationship with the discussion of death, then I’d argue their relationship with cancer is worse. We all know the facts and figures from brochures and adverts, but the ability to actually talk about it once you’re in that situation is a lot harder.

The way I went about it was to try and understand my mum rather than be afraid. I started by asking when she first noticed something might be wrong – what symptoms, how quickly the hospital dealt with it, what days her chemotherapy sessions would be on. It makes it easier being away from them when you know what they’re going through in your absence and they know that you’re maintaining an active interest.

It’s going to be uncomfortable at first but any basic understanding will help you to understand what your parent is going through and thus how to behave with them – guess what, they’re going to want you to behave exactly the same as you always were.

Don’t become the victim

It’s not rocket science that letting yourself be upset aids the healing process, but it’s both ironic and selfish to make someone else’s diagnosis a matter of such personal trauma for yourself – around them. Yes, it is an awful situation, no, you’re not going through nearly as much shit as they are.

Mum made it abundantly clear from the outset that we could chat whenever we wanted about it, but it would not define a new chapter in our relationship. When you see your parent after a long term at uni, they’re going to want to catch up, not cry over spilt milk.

Graduation – July 2019

Try not to bring too many friends home

It seems obvious, but this is a different way of life now, and it’s likely that you won’t be able to do certain things that you used to because your parent will be exhausted from the whole experience.

I can’t stress how bad an idea it is to bring numerous friends and girlfriends (especially the annoying ones lol) back from uni and just expect the place to be the same as it was. I’d even get angry that it wasn’t, often bringing people down, not getting the reception I thought I’d deserve and leaving early. It’s pretty simple – don’t do it. The house is your parent’s space to relax and be themselves, try not to do anything to deprive them of this.

Move at your own pace

It may seem weird then that I now say not to let anyone tell you that you should or shouldn’t feel anything. In fact, if you’re not ready for anything on this list or disagree with any of the points listed here, feel free to tell me how wrong I am. It’s individual to everyone, but take it from me; you don’t want to look back and regret anything, because you might not have time to reconcile.

If you need any support or are going through a similar situation then I’m always happy to chat: [email protected]

CRUK Counselling – This site goes through the different types of counselling available through Cancer Research, both for sufferers and for family members.

r/cancer – A Reddit forum where real humans talk about cancer. It’s super easy to make an account, and you’re immediately opened up to a whole community of people going through the same. If you have a question or just want a chat, give this a shot.

CRUK Forum – A place where people talk openly and help others out with their worries. Every possible cancer question has been asked and answered, and it is very reassuring to see other people going through the same experiences. There are medical professionals as well as normal people here, and they’re all about helping each other out.

Related stories recommended by this writer:

Cancer didn’t stop me from finishing my degree, starting a charity and running a triathlon

What it was like to watch my mum survive cancer

I was diagnosed with cancer in third year, but that hasn’t stopped me pursuing my dream of being a lawyer