Special college fair helps young cancer patients ‘unlock’ their future

Published 1:42 pm Thursday, March 16, 2023

By Hilary Brown

University of Kentucky

On Thursday, March 2, 42 teens and young adults, all patients in the Adolescent and Young Adult Oncology Program (AYA), attended “Unlock Your Future,” the inaugural college and career program for oncology and hematology patients.

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Part of the DanceBlue Kentucky Children’s Hospital Hematology/Oncology Clinic, the AYA program provides treatment and support for cancer and hematology patients age 15-29. This event was an opportunity for patients to meet with representatives from a number of colleges, universities and trade programs to discuss application processes, financial aid and scholarship opportunities. For these patients, it’s a chance to be regular high school students and start thinking about those next steps.

Many patients experience long hospital stays and inconsistent school attendance because of their illnesses. On top of the stress of a cancer diagnosis, they also must contend with possibly falling behind in their schoolwork or even leave school while in treatment.

“A cancer diagnosis can derail their education,” said Courtney Emery, one of the DanceBlue Clinic’s school intervention specialists. “We help them stay on track so they can finish high school or get their GED.”

Emery and her colleague Emily Dillow along with administrator Elizabeth Henderson lead the PAWS (Providing Assistance With School) Program and serve as educational liaisons between a patient and their school. They educate staff and teachers about their patients’ illnesses, coordinate home instruction and help students and educators navigate additional resources to minimize the educational gaps that can occur while in treatment. For college students whose education is disrupted by their treatment, Emery and Dillow work with registrars, financial aid and student housing to make sure their patient is supported if they have to withdraw.

Preparing for life after high school is daunting prospect for any teen, but even more so for those dealing with a serious illness. At the “Unlock Your Future” college and career fair, Emery and Dillow ensured that their patients get the best possible start on the next chapter of their lives.

“We try to help them achieve their goals, in spite of what they’re dealing with,” said Emery. “We want them to be successful in whatever career they choose ­— whether they are finishing treatment or dealing with a lifelong blood disorder. We make sure we meet them where they are and help them set realistic goals for the long term.”

After a few years of hosting financial aid planning events for high school patients, Emery and Dillow realized that patients may have missed crucial college and career planning, and once they finish school and treatment, they may have no idea what to do next. The idea of hosting a college and career fair was born out of recognizing a need to have their patient’s questions answered in one place.

“Everyone has the ability to do something,” Emery said. “We try to identify what that is and help them pick something that aligns with their interests. We have patients of all backgrounds and abilities, and we know college isn’t for everyone. If it’s not what they want to do, we talk to them about trades and certifications where they can make good salaries after six or 12 months of training.”

Two special guests made special (virtual) appearances at the fair. Former UK football player Josh Pascal and Eastern Kentucky University men’s basketball coach A.W. Hamilton, both cancer survivors, popped in to deliver messages of encouragement to those in attendance. A representative from Kentucky Higher Education Authority was on hand to answer questions about financial aid and to talk about scholarship opportunities available to cancer patients, patients with chronic medical conditions and even siblings of patients.

“It was so enjoyable to meet with so many amazing students from the surrounding Central Kentucky region who are interested in possibly becoming a Wildcat,” said Liz Matherly, assistant director of admissions for recruitment at UK. “This fair was unique in that many of these prospective students are familiar with UK from their connection to UK HealthCare, so it was exciting to share with them about the university side of UK. I know these students will succeed regardless of where they land, though we hope they continue to call UK home and discover what is wildly possible as a student.”

The event was funded by the Reagan Faith Warren Memorial Fund in honor of a patient who passed away in 2016. Dinner and dessert were donated by Chuy’s and Nothing Bundt Cake. Attendees received a backpack full of swag and prizes were raffled off.

“We had families drive in from all over the state,” said Emery. “Clearly this a worthwhile experience for them. One mom said it was a great opportunity, and that they could really start making plans for the future.”

“This is the kind of forward-thinking programming that we do to help our patients and families in a holistic way,” said John D’Orazio, M.D., division chief of pediatric hematology and oncology. “I’m so grateful for the team we have.”

Emery and Dillow are already planning next year’s fair — more colleges, more trades and more patients. Those patients, who probably for the first time in a long time, can plan for a future they weren’t sure they were going to have.

“Let’s help them see a future and success,” said Emery. “And experience success so they can live the life they want to live.”