Higher education

Higher education provides an opportunity to study a subject you enjoy and get a degree-level qualification. It's also a time to make friends and try new things at clubs and societies. You may worry that having cancer will stop you going to college or university or from having these experiences. 

Even with a cancer diagnosis, you should be able to continue your studies or return to complete your course after treatment. Most higher education institutions provide a supportive environment and flexible teaching arrangements. You also have important legal rights.

It can feel isolating if you are diagnosed when you're away from home but colleges and universities employ lots of people and provide services to help you with all aspects of student life.


Support for students with a cancer diagnosis can include many different things:

  • Extra time for course work and extensions to deadlines e.g. if you have fatigue
  • Scribes or notetakers
  • A designated parking space at the university
  • Flexibility in attendance and punctuality when you go for hospital appointments and treatment
  • Anticipatory arrangements and support for placements on professional courses such as teaching and social work
  • Support for practical and field work
  • Arrangements for special dietary needs e.g. being allowed to keep stuff in a fridge or eat snacks during lectures
  • Supervised rest breaks during exams
  • Support from welfare and counselling staff
  • Communication with staff during any periods you're away.

Your rights

Under the Equality Act, higher education institutions in England, Scotland and Wales must not discriminate against disabled people. In Northern Ireland you have similar rights under the Special Educational Needs and Disability Order (SENDO). People with cancer automatically meet the legal definition of 'disabled' from the day they're diagnosed.

Colleges and universities also have to make 'reasonable adjustments' so that disabled students are not disadvantaged. This means they have a legal duty to make changes to ensure courses are accessible to students with cancer, including those with late effects.

You should expect to get the support you need to continue with your studies and graduate from your course.

Getting help

You need to tell your college or university you have a cancer diagnosis before they can put support and reasonable adjustments in place. It's your choice if and when you tell people. When you apply to higher education there is an early opportunity to do this on the online UCAS form.

You can have a confidential discussion with a disability adviser in student services at any time. This is one of a range of services including money advice, accommodation, health and well-being centres, counselling and careers advice. Lots of students go in and out of student services all the time so there’s no need to worry about any stigma.

If you don't feel comfortable doing this by yourself, check if your institution has societies or Student Union groups that can offer support. These groups could prove valuable to getting the most out of the services available.

You can usually make your request for an initial appointment with student services over the phone or by email. You can get help when from you're first diagnosed, if you need time off from the course or when you return to study.

Extra costs

Where there are extra cancer-related study costs, you can apply for Disabled Students' Allowances (DSAs). These can pay towards specialist equipment such as a digital recorder for taking notes or recording lectures. You could get voice-recognition software if it's hard for you to type. If you have fatigue you can use DSAs to buy books that you’d otherwise have to carry from the library. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there is also an allowance towards extra travel costs if you need to use taxis rather than public transport.

Universities can help to arrange a formal needs assessment which can be combined with the assessment for DSAs. This is a face-to-face meeting with someone who understands how to support students with an illness or health condition, with the expertise to make additional recommendations.


If you have cancer, flexibility on the part of the institution and good lines of communication are really important. It’s vital the college or university understands the impact of your illness and encourages you to fulfil your potential during and after treatment.

Last reviewed: November 2015

Next planned review: December 2016