Students with chronic illness share struggles and advice on grappling with school, health complications
Editor’s note: The Mainstream usually shares the stories of other students, but this time we are also including a first-person account of our feature editor who attends school with a challenging health condition. She tells her own story alongside the stories of other students who also have health struggles.
My days begin in pain, often: it’s a blessing when this is not the case. I frequently wake in the middle of the night with my chest and back radiating inflammation. I live with systemic lupus erythematosus, SLE, often just called lupus.
Lupus is an autoimmune disease, heavily triggered by stress. I learned to cope with my illness before I ever considered going to college 20 years after attending high school; now, I am a full-time student on a mission to be a psychologist, presently navigating the stress of trying to maintain work/life balance. If I stress, my body responds with inflammation throughout my organs, often causing arthritic pain, and notable memory problems. Not stressing while in college is difficult.
The school/chronic illness struggle
Maintaining a good quality of life as both a successful college student and as an adult with a chronic illness is extremely challenging. Data from WebMD, estimates seven percent of college-aged people live with a chronic illness in the United States. Considering that one-third of UCC’s student population is non-traditional, a term that usually means our students are older, the percentage of students attending school here with chronic illnesses or conditions may be significantly higher.
Chronic conditions like diabetes, epilepsy, fibromyalgia, auto-immune disorders, genetic disorders and cancer are especially problematic for college students as these illnesses can cause difficulties with concentration for those who suffer from the brain fog that comes from many medical treatments and chronic inflammation, resulting in assignment delay and decision fatigue.
Earning good grades can be difficult for many students, but for people with chronic health conditions, they face the compounded strain of managing their health while attempting to earn those good grades. The Center for Online Colleges, which provides various resources for college students including those with chronic conditions said, “Many of these individuals will struggle with their school’s attendance policy and will be forced to miss days or weeks of school in order to receive treatment or therapy; in some cases, such as students with cancer who must undergo chemotherapy, this period of absence can last months or years.”
As a writer for the school newspaper and a member of multiple clubs on campus, trying to maintain a good GPA while navigating continual pain and a plethora of doctor’s appointments, I often question the potential of school payoff; is it worth the struggle?
Lately, I have been wondering, even more often, how many other students struggle with this; then I met Adriana Berduzco, a 52-year-old student recently dealing with treatment for liver cancer.
Berduzco returned to UCC after she already had a cancer diagnosis, but felt it was improving; she returned for something productive to do, something that would help her future job prospects and keep her socialized.
“I didn’t want to stay at home and feel sorry for myself,” Berduzco said over the phone. “I also wanted to be around others, I have always been a social person.”
Berduzco did not intend to struggle through cancer treatments while attending UCC, it is just the way it happened: “I thought I was getting better,” she told me. Then Berduzco received a follow-up from an October 17 PET scan a few weeks into the 2022 fall term and found tumors had spread to her other organs. She still wanted to continue her school; she just did not know what steps to take to get there.
So, despite grappling with the strong possibility of facing extreme difficulties in attending school through cancer treatments, Berduzco tried to continue her four classes along with a schedule of chemo infusions for the months ahead.
Berduzco admits that the chemo treatments were more difficult to contend with than she could imagine. “I felt like I was dying,” Berduzco said. “I had a terrible headache, pain in my bones and constant nausea; I could barely move for three days.” Berduzco was told by several people to just drop school and focus on health. She understood the concern, but admits she finds pleasure and motivation in her return to school. “I want to prove to myself I can do this,” Berduzco said.
When former ASUCC president and program assitant for UCC’s Upward Bound Program, Amanda Cerda, began her schooling here, she was concerned about potential assignment delays she may have due to her chronic pain and complications from her connective tissue disorder Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, but she soon discovered UCC offers several accessibility resources available to students with health conditions and learning variances.
“Once I came here, I realized the extent of support we can receive here,” Cerda said. Accessibilities Coordinator, Les Rogers, met with her to discuss possible solutions to deal with the myriad of challenges students with chronic illness face.
Accessibility resources like reading aids for dyslexia, specific seating or different time limits and flexible deadlines are some available accommodations the college offers for students who meet with accessibilities staff, but UCC also offers other useful resources. Programs like the Transfer Opportunity Program, TOP, also serve students with disabilities and provide individualized guidance for first-generation college students who plan to transfer to a university. TOP offers one-on-one tutoring, specialized workshops, scholarship guidance and personalized academic advising.
ASUCC, UCC’s student government, also has services that could be useful for students with chronic illnesses, providing food baskets and even gas cards for students in need.
The bad and the ugly
Cerda, Berduzco and I all have to contend with the challenges of trying to focus at a college level while experiencing continued fatigue at school. Berduzco also juggles school with painful chemotherapy treatments.
Some students with chronic illnesses must also deal with the additional difficulties of attending school in a close-quarter social environment while being immunocompromised.
Deadlines are a challenge that first year immunocompromised journalism student Robin Bruns is somewhat familiar with as he was diagnosed with leukemia at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown. Although Bruns successfully completed treatments just before the start of the 2022 fall term at UCC, he admits to, “the confounding complications of being a student living in the aftermath of cancer treatment. This involves a lot of fatigue, livable-but-noticeable immunocompromised health (getting sicker for longer and often worse periods than others) and a tendency to get more easily hurt,” Bruns wrote in an email.
Second year art and transfer student Maggie Campbell manages Lyme disease, fibromyalgia and postural orthostatic tachycardia, which causes severe drops in heart pressure and blood pressure resulting in dizziness and concentration difficulties.
Proving it can be done
College classes require great attention to detail as students process readings, lectures, project instructions, lab work and technology all while adjusting to the differing communication and course styles of their multiple instructors. Doing all of this with Lyme disease, which causes fever, headache and extreme fatigue is a challenge that Campbell deals with. “I get a sense of accomplishment; my motivation is continually proving I can do this,” Campbell said. “It’s been really good to my self-esteem.”
She is not the only one whose self-trust has improved through these challenges.
Cerda also notes that her own perseverance has helped her self-perception. “(School) helped me gain confidence,” Cerda said. “It can be too easy for people to give up on things that matter to them.”
As someone who continues to struggle with trying to be a good student when my body is rebelling, I recognized something in Cerda’s, Berduzco’s and Brun’s drive to continue school while they manage their health.
Through the fog brain, the pain and the deadlines, I have learned I am capable, and I have improved my communication skills as I continually let instructors know what is happening to my body. I have also developed a network of people I can count on, not only for school but in life, especially in campus clubs like Spanish Club and journalism which is how I met Berduzco and Bruns.
Originally from Mexico, Berduzco had an interest in joining Spanish Club to share and explore her knowledge of Hispanic heritage. With a noticeable joie-di-vie and readiness to share the food, dance and language of her culture, Berduzco made friends quickly in the club. After Berduzco’s recent treatment, the students of Spanish Club got together to deliver flowers and a homemade card to let her know they were all rooting for her.
Berduzco was admittedly touched. Initially reluctant to share her medical struggles, Berduzco saw the benefit in letting others know.
“I am so grateful I have friends here; I feel I belong,” Berduzco said. “It’s nice to have fun activities and be around people who take the time to care.”
Berduzco is still in the process of finding her balance at school but does not regret coming back.
“I really like UCC; I feel welcome here,” Berduzco said.
For more information for coping with chronic illness as a college student visit:
Click here to see Adriana Berduzco’s personal story of dealing with chronic illness.
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