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3 Tips for Succeeding as a Student With Chronic Illness

Jaye Barnes
College students walking in a hallway and chatting.

It’s that time of year again — time for all the big “kids” and small ones to get ready and head back to school. During my final year studying for both of my bachelor’s degrees, I first began to experience some of my chronic conditions. I can relate to what it’s like to deal with a high-stress school environment while also dealing with constant doctors’ appointments and life-threatening illness.

In 2008, I had my gall bladder removed, and what was supposed to be a simple little outpatient procedure turned very difficult when the surgeon nicked my vagus nerve. The vagus nerve controls a whole host of internal functions most people probably never think about on a daily basis, but which turned my whole world upside down.

First I experienced the failure of my bile duct and pancreatic duct as I developed a couple of rare conditions called sphincter of Oddi dysfunction and pancreatic sphincter dysfunction. This lead to a whole host of problems, not the least of which was the beginning of a long-standing relationship with pancreatitis, which I first contracted the summer before my senior year as an undergrad student. For a while, it wasn’t just wondering if I’d get back to school that was the worst part of that first bout with pancreatitis. We actually wondered if I’d make it out alive. Thankfully I did, and I spent the next year recovering while I finished my bachelor’s degrees.

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This leads me to the reason for this article: I wanted to give those of us who are brave enough to take on an active school career while dealing with chronic illness a few tips on how to deal with both situations at the same time, because it’s no easy task, believe me! Here are my top three tips on dealing with chronic illness as a student.

1. Communicate well and often with your professors or teachers.

Even though a lot of college professors may seem very inaccessible, they really do appreciate it if you let them know what’s going on — why you may be gone from time to time, and why some assignments may come in much later than they’re due. Especially during my master’s program, I was very up front with all of my professors about what I was going through and why. I spent a lot of time in the hospital during my master’s, and there were times when I even had to miss some exams. But my professors were all more than willing to work with me to give me extensions — sometimes multiple — on missed work and time. The more honest I was with them and the earlier I spoke to them, the better.

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2. Be willing to forgive yourself.

When you’re missing a lot of school because of illness and the late assignments begin to pile up, it can become very easy to beat yourself up psychologically. It’s important to remember that this thing happening to you is not your fault. You didn’t ask for it and you can’t control it. I believe learning to forgive yourself for these things you can’t control is essential to maintaining a healthy and positive frame of mind in a high stress environment.

All of my professors during both my bachelor’s and master’s programs were more than willing to forgive me for lateness or absenteeism due to my illnesses, but I found it was exponentially harder for me to forgive myself. Once I learned to do that, it made dealing with late assignments and beginning to finish my work as best I could so much easier. It’s much better to go into the school environment without the weight of placing blame for your situation on your own shoulders. I know it’s hard to do, but if you’re brave enough to face school through illness, I know you can be brave enough to master forgiveness of yourself as well!

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3. Manage the time available to you wisely.

When you’re ill you’re almost certainly going to have to deal with late assignments and papers, missed exams or tests. Once you’re communicating well with your professors or teachers and can reach an agreement on when these late items are due, it is essential to manage whatever time you have to complete them well. This may mean  you have less time for social concerns or you need to cut back on other activities to get everything done. But it’s important to remember the main reason you went to school in the first place was to finish this work. If you load yourself up with too many other activities on the side, it can become very easy to get yourself into a situation that is so stressful it can actually exacerbate your illness.

If you’re like me, stress becomes a huge trigger for illness, and it can often bring on episodes that become harder and harder to control. So it’s important to put schoolwork first and give yourself plenty of time to get it done. All of my professors made this as easy as possible on me, as they all realized it wasn’t only one class I had late assignments in, but all of my classes. So they were more than willing to work with me and ensure I had plenty of time to complete all of my work, even if it bled over into the next semester. I made ample use of the calendar app on my computer to map out my time and make sure whatever assignments needed to be completed first got done on time.

So there you have it! This is not a comprehensive list of ways to deal with school and chronic illness by any means, but I feel like these three quick tips are the most important for students, and will give you the best possible chance at completing your school career in the most timely and affirming way.

Unfortunately, I was never able to finish my master’s program due to the progressing severity of my illnesses, but that doesn’t mean it’s an impossible task for you. Just be willing to give yourself the time and leeway necessary to do the work you need to do in the time available to you. You can do it! I believe in you!

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