Bags packed, tickets in hand, and standing in Kings Cross Station, the realisation hit me. This was it: one cancer diagnosis later and a year out of anything remotely academic, I was returning to St Andrews. Excitement, elation, independence, but mostly fear was circulating my body. This was real. It was actually happening.
My leave of absence was hardly expected or planned. In June 2015, after my second year examinations, the lump that had resided on my neck for over a month was graciously christened Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a form of cancer. My worst nightmare was confirmed and suddenly my summer plans had drastically changed. Survival was the only word in my vocabulary as bags of chemotherapy filtered into my life. The girl who had never smoked, did not drink, was healthy and only twenty had cancer. Tears. Uncontrollable tears dominated my life for around six months.
However, in November, after months of toxic chemotherapy, changes in treatment, hair loss and all the other elements that cancer floods your life with, I received the news of a 100 percent negative PET scan. I was in remission. I do not think that I ever genuinely accepted that I had cancer, but that day, for the first time in months, the dark shadows and voices of death that had been cohabiting my mind vanished.
Since the New Year, my life has resembled one of luxury. I have travelled around Amsterdam, Copenhagen, Norway, and England. I have continued to go horse riding every day, walk my dog, and meet friends. I learnt to ride a motorbike, got myself a boyfriend, and baked as if I was applying for next year’s Great British Bake Off, but deep inside I knew this would come to an end. Soon I would return to a life of academia, hobbies and distance from those who had supported me so much over the past year. Quite frankly, I was no longer sure that I wanted to return to this existence. So, how does it really feel to be back in the Bubble after a leave of absence?
The only suitable word to describe my first two weeks back at university has to be overwhelming. I felt disorientated as reading lists, timetables and essay titles were splattered on my laptop screen after advising; where was I expected to begin? Suddenly the lovely bounded tutorial reading booklets were non-existent, I could not answer any of the questions posed to me and my timetable made it virtually impossible for me to return to London for a weekend. I was lost. I wanted to go home. I did not want to face what came with university and I certainly did not want to return to the monotonous pattern of studying. Not just this, but after spending two hours reading an article for my first lecture and not understanding a single word or concept, I broke down. Everyone in the Bubble had returned with such ease, travelling and functioning at a pace that I could not replicate.
However, two weeks in, things are looking much brighter. Although the work is more independent than ever before and I miss home, the University staff have helped to soften the blow from the initial punch in the face that was the first week. Having spoken to various other leave of absence students, I think we are all in agreement. Not only did Student Services contact me directly in August to arrange a meeting with me once I arrived at St Andrews, but they were also understanding of the fears I might have after a year out during our first meeting. They offered me counselling services, a place to talk and emphasised the fact that they were there for any need I might have throughout the course of the year. Additionally, Registry, Student Services, CAPOD, and the Academic Schools arranged an afternoon for returning students where the school presidents welcomed us back. They updated us on what was happening in the Schools, answered questions about matriculation, and provided us with the great addition of cake and tea. This support has been incredible, particularly with the lecturers being understanding and advising us wherever possible.
Chris Graham, a fellow returning student noted, “the School of Classics is helping me with any problems I have been having” and I could not agree more concerning my experience with the Social Anthropology Department.
So, the biggest demon that I will face this year will be making friends. Not only will this year be a readjustment period for me in terms of studying, but I now have to reintegrate myself into student life and social circles. The only things I wish to do are have a great final year with my friends and occasionally pop down to London for the weekend. But then the questions become, who will I be spending my fourth year with? All the third years are fundamentally in their own firmly established social circles. They attend their lectures and then disperse immediately out of the room as if a dragon had just entered, leaving no opportunity to meet or talk to anyone after the lecture. Language students knew they would be having an extra year together so are all one big community, and then there is me. This is terribly daunting, especially as everything was so perfectly established two years ago. It is scary and frustrating that a disease has ripped apart my entire life in every sense and even my future.
I have come to realise that sometimes the journey you face with cancer does not simply end when you get the all clear. In fact, for me, life without cancer has actually been harder than life with it. I spent the months after treatment despising every aspect of my body. I feel the need to tell everyone I meet that I had cancer in order to justify my appearance and prove that this choice of hairstyle was imposed on me. I still do not recognise myself in the mirror because of my short hair and returning to university has been hard. I desire to run away and reach out to my closest friends, but I believe it important for any leave of absence student, regardless of the reason, not to hide away and live in fear. Instead, we should stand up and say “yes, I took a year out:” join societies, engage with university events, balls, subject committees and not be afraid of the Bubble. Sometimes we must have the courage to jump into the deep end. Do not let fear isolate you or apprehensions limit your university experience. I am sure it will be hard but that does not mean that reintegrating will be impossible. And when it all gets too tough, I have learnt that you can turn to your friends and family; the ones who are there when the reality of your powerlessness is exposed.
So, how does it feel to be back? Scary, overwhelming, but most of all exciting. I have finally regained my independence after a year, I am studying what I want to, I am involving myself in student life and, most importantly, I am alive to enjoy and experience it all.