Back-to-College Health Tips for Cancer Survivors

As any cancer survivor knows, the road to survival is neither easy nor traveled alone. Along the way, and always striving to push the cancer patient in a forward direction are family and friends, doctors, nurses, social workers and teachers, all of whom have devoted love, prayers and expertise into the recovery process. So sending a young cancer survivor off to college and into the world holds particular concern, as we all want you to stay as healthy as possible.

With this in mind, Cancer for College recently spoke with Karla Wilson, Nurse Practitioner at City of Hope’s Childhood Cancer Survivorship Program. As a pediatric oncology nurse for 40 years, Wilson has clear insight and simple wisdom for cancer survivors settling into college life right now.

Immunizations: Flu shot, meningococcal and pneumococcal vaccines

“The big thing is immunzations,” Wilson began, “which all college students, not just cancer survivors, need and tend to overlook. I’d like to stress the importance of the flu shot and the meningococcal vaccine, which some colleges may even require for all students living in dorms.”

The flu is a common enough ailment that often we may not give it as much consideration as we should, thousands die annually from flu complications – many of whom were in good health. With cancer treatments leaving a patient’s immune system weakened, the cancer survivor college student is more vulnerable to even the most common ailments.

Less common than the flu but posing an increased risk to college students is meningitis, and Wilson recommends the meningococal vaccine to help protect against this illness.

“Infectious diseases tend to spread quickly wherever large groups of people gather together,” states the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. “As a result, first-year college students living in residence halls are at a slightly increased risk compared with other persons of the same age. A vaccine is available and recommended for all first-year college students living in a residence hall. However, any college student can receive the vaccine to decrease their chances of getting meningococcal disease.”

The third immunization Wilson suggests is the pneumococcal, to fend off pneumonia. “Chemotherapy, chest radiation or stem cell and bone marrow transplant patients are at greater risk of developing pulmonary issues,” she explains, particularly if the chemotherapy treatment included any of the following drugs: BCNU, CCNU, Busulfan or Bleomycin.

Wilson also suggests the health links on this website as a resource for cancer survivors. Please check with your own medical provider to discuss what best fits your needs based on your medical history. 

The Basics: Hand Washing, Nutrition, Sleep 

Hand washing is the number one thing people can do to keep healthy,” notes Wilson, with a simple reminder to keep items such as computers and phones clean, particularly if they are shared. To ensure your hand-washing is effective, wash your hands for 20 seconds (about the amount of time it takes to hum “Happy Birthday”), paying careful attention to your fingernails, the back of your hands and spaces between your fingers.

In addition to keeping your hands clean, it’s important to maintain a nutritious diet and get ample rest and exercise, all of which can be a real challenge for college students. But here’s some thoughts to keep in mind:

“People who eat an assortment of fruits and vegetables are receiving a variety of vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that help improve immunity,” says City of Hope’s Survivorship Connection newsletter. “This allows a person to fight off infections more easily and recover from illness more quickly.” Certainly there are temptations in the food halls, but try to mix in fresh fruits and vegetables as often as possible.

Consistent, quality sleep is often not a top priority, or even a possibility, for college students. But here’s some motivation:

“Lack of sleep can affect your immune system,” writes Timothy Morgenthaler, M.D., for the Mayo Clinic. “Studies show that people who don’t get quality sleep or enough sleep are more likely to get sick after being exposed to a virus, such as the common cold. Lack of sleep can also affect how fast you recover if you do get sick.”

A Word on Risky Behaviors

When I asked Wilson if she had anything to add in terms of advice for staying healthy, she was quick with her concerned response. “There can be a vulnerability in young cancer survivors,” shares Wilson, “because they may feel that they have missed out on some important times in life.”

Indulging in risky behaviors (alcohol exposure for one example), is a potential side effect in her opinion for cancer survivors. “Put a value on your life and always remember how much has gone into saving yours,” Wilson implores. “It’s easy to get sucked into inappropriate behaviors while at school, so watch the temptations and be smart in your choices.”

This CFC Blogger remembers the fun and freedom of college life, particularly in that first year. But my perspective has changed dramatically now that I am the parent of a high school senior. Seen through the parent lens, fun and freedom now look more like risk and temptation. For all college students, we remind you to make choices which put personal safety and health first.

“Back in the 1970s, when I first started in pediatric oncology, we were just trying to cure young cancer patients,” remembers Wilson, “but now we are striving to cure patients well so that cancer survivors, particularly childhood cancer survivors, can lead healthy, productive lives.”

City of Hope’s Center for Cancer Survivorship Program is available to anyone diagnosed with cancer prior to 22 years of age and who is two years out of treatment. The program is grant-funded and holds no cost to individuals or insurances. For more information, please click here to visit their website.

A special thank you to Karla Wilson for sharing her time and expertise for this post.

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