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Navigating School as a Teen With Cancer: A Survivor's Story

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Having cancer at any age is tough, but it’s especially hard when you are a young teen who is still finding yourself and discovering who you want to be.

Returning to school during or after treatment can be daunting especially if your peers haven’t seen you in a long time or perhaps maybe even they don’t know about your diagnosis.

Maybe you are worried about how your peers will react to the changes in your appearance, or if you will be able to keep up with a school task load.

Whatever your concerns are, just know that you are not alone.

“It was especially difficult being the only 'sick' kid in a school full of normal healthy kids. I stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no hiding myself away from being the kid with cancer, so I had to learn how to accept that identity and make it my own.”

— Cheyenne Heflin

Cheyenne Heflin was finishing chemo treatments in 2013 and planning to attend online school when she realized that she wanted to be around other kids her age and have the in-person high school experience.

A few months after having received an above-knee amputation and still undergoing chemotherapy treatments for osteosarcoma, Cheyenne started high school at a private school in her hometown.

“For my first semester, I would basically spend two weeks in school, then two weeks in hospital for treatments, repeating until I finally finished,” Cheyenne states.

Transition From Treatment to Full-Time School

Cheyenne was having a hard time getting her teachers and peers to understand her physical needs and limitations.

“Some of my teachers refused to work with me on things I had missed, accusing me of just 'not paying attention' and saying I needed to figure stuff out on my own," she indicates.

She also dealt with some kids being difficult due to the way she approached her disability.

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Cheyenne enjoys using humor as an icebreaker and cope with her situation

“I just like to have a little fun and show people I don’t care about being different.”

But she still dealt with unnecessary backlash from peers who lashed out at her about it.

Cheyenne pranking her choir teacher

Cheyenne pranking her choir teacher

“All in all, the biggest highlights of my high school career were struggling to build up my physical strength, coming to terms with my disability, and learning how to move on past the fear of cancer recurring. I ended up with some amazing friends who supported me through that, but it was still difficult to come to terms with how much my life had changed after cancer. It was especially difficult being the only 'sick' kid in a school full of normal healthy kids. I stuck out like a sore thumb. There was no hiding myself away from being the kid with cancer, so I had to learn how to accept that identity and make it my own.”

In Her Own Words

What's a favorite high school memory?

"My school was small, so everyone knew that a freshman had started who had cancer. What I wasn’t expecting was to get so much support right out of the gate. I got a text from some upperclassmen who I had made friends with that I was voted freshman homecoming princess! I couldn’t believe it. I ended up being able to get dressed up and go to the homecoming football game, where I was recognized along with all the other members of the homecoming court. And then I got invited to the homecoming dance and spent an amazing night out just feeling like a normal teenager. It’s one of the best memories I have of high school."


What was the hardest thing about school?

“The hardest thing was trying to get people to understand my needs physically. Since I had to get an amputation as part of my treatment for osteosarcoma (bone cancer), I was getting used to walking with a prosthetic, how much more energy I needed every day as a disabled person, and other big issues that a lot of people didn’t try to understand. This was compounded by the fact that I only finished chemo after my first semester at this high school, so I was still recovering from chemotherapy and surgery and all these other things. I was trying to keep up with physically healthy kids and some teachers just didn’t understand that and tried to punish me for it. This problem went away as I got healthier, and as I learned to stand up for myself (and as my dad would go in and take care of problems for me). But the fact that there were so many issues with a clear and obvious disability and cancer history was baffling to me.”

What was your favorite thing about school?

“My favorite thing about school was when I joined choir. Getting to participate in a group activity like that—especially something that wasn’t affected by my disability or my tiredness and recovery from chemo—made me feel like a normal kid again. I was able to put myself out there for solo roles, leadership roles, and other things without feeling like I was different from anyone else. I made some of my best friends, and my best memories, going through choir during my last three years of high school. No matter how challenging it was physically or emotionally for me, I wouldn’t change it.”

Do you have advice for teens with cancer who are starting school?

“Start talking to your teachers and administration as soon as you can. If problems are going to arise, they’re going to arise early, and it’s best to catch them before they even start. You can set up expectations and plans to accommodate how you’re feeling and change things as you’re recovering and getting better. You have every right to get help and support from your school, no matter who decides to try and get in your way. If someone is causing you problems, stand up for yourself and advocate. You’re the only one who’s going to be able to know what help you need. You deserve to have a fun and normal school experience just like everyone else.”

Contributor: Cheyenne Heflin

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Mia Hensley

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