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College, Coronavirus, and Cancer: What You Should Know

College campuses are operating differently in some ways because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

College and universities are taking a variety of approaches. Many schools are having on-campus classes with certain adjustments for physical distancing and requiring masks. Others may have vaccination requirements.

College campuses will operate much differently during the 2021-2022 school year because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

College campuses will operate much differently during the 2021-2022 school year because of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic.

If you are a college student who is a cancer patient or survivor, you may be asking:

  • If I have choice of online or on-campus classes, which option should I choose?
  • Should I live in on-campus housing?
  • Should I go to social events?
  • Does having cancer or being a cancer survivor put me at more risk of getting COVID-19 and developing serious complications?
  • How should I travel to college? Would this travel put me at higher risk?

The answer to these questions depends on your individual situation. You are encouraged to contact your care team or most trusted health provider (if you are no longer in treatment) to help you understand your risks.

What Factors Should I Consider About COVID-19 and College?

The risk of COVID-19 increases the more you interact with others and with the length of time you are with others. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has these guiding principles:

COVID-19 Vaccines and College

Being vaccinated against COVID-19 remains the most effective way to protect yourself against an infection. Some colleges and universities are requiring the vaccine to attend classes. Medical and religious exemptions still apply. 

Cancer May Weaken Your Immune System

If your immune system is compromised you may be more vulnerable to any infection, including COVID-19. 

Cancer and cancer treatments can weaken the immune system. Your care team can advise you about your risks and steps you can take to protect yourself from exposure to the virus. 

Certain Medical Conditions May Lead to Complications

Some childhood cancer survivors may be at higher risk for developing complications of COVID-19 because they have certain medical conditions. In many cases, they developed these conditions because of the cancer treatments they received during childhood or adolescence. These are known as late effects.

Smoking Is a Risk Factor

Smoking tobacco is a risk factor for severe COVID-19 illness in young adults 18-25. You can learn more about tools to help you quit smoking. Take positive steps to live a healthier life.

How Can I Protect Myself?

The best ways to prevent illness are to get vaccinated against COVID-19 and avoid being exposed to the coronavirus.

Prevention methods:

  • Get vaccinated.
  • Stay home or in your dorm room as much as possible.
  • Some colleges are offering students the chance to live alone in dorm rooms. That is an option to discuss with your family and care team.
  • Avoid contact with anyone who is sick with any illness.
  • Keep physical distancing of 3 feet between you and others when possible.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. This is especially important if you are working or visiting public spaces.
  • If you don’t have soap and water, use a hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol. Cover all surfaces of your hands and rub them together until they feel dry.
  • Avoid touching your face, mouth, and eyes.
  • Wear a face mask when you are around other people indoors when unable to distance.
  • Avoid large groups of people.
  • Avoid buses, subways, and other mass transit.
  • Clean and disinfect surfaces that are touched often such as phones, keyboards, doorknobs, light switches, and countertops.
  • If you smoke, stop. If you don’t smoke, don’t start.

Keep these guidelines in mind when making decisions about where to live and what events to attend.

Identify Medical Providers in College Community

No matter the situation, it’s a good idea to know the health resources available to you as a student. In addition, is important to know how to act if you are exposed to someone with COVID-19 or develop symptoms of COVID-19. Don’t wait until you become ill. 

If you are attending a college away from home, you may need to do a little research. The student health office on campus is a good resource. Visit your school’s website for more information or call the clinic to find out what services are offered. Many may be free or offered at a reduced cost. The clinic may also provide referrals for other health needs. 

If you are covered by your parents’ health insurance, make sure you have a card (or suitable copy) that you can take with you to the doctor. Ask your parents for help in figuring out which providers in your college’s community accept your insurance. 

What Happens If I Develop COVID-19 Symptoms?

If you have symptoms, call ahead before going to the doctor and follow the instructions the office gives you.

The CDC has a self-checker guide that may help you make decisions and seek appropriate medical care.

Mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Shortness of breath
  • Body aches
  • Loss of sense of smell and taste

Know warning signs that require emergency care. These may include:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Persistent pain or pressure in the chest
  • New confusion or difficulty to wake from sleep
  • Bluish lips and face

If you have any of these serious symptoms, seek medical care right away.

Protect Others Who Are at Risk

Think about people you encounter on a regular basis at school or as you prepare to return home during a break as you are making your decisions. Is anyone more at risk for getting COVID-19 and developing serious complications? If so, be even more careful than usual. While you may be able to get through an infection OK, you do not want to give the virus to someone else.

Always keep in mind that COVID-19 does not always cause symptoms. If you were exposed to the virus while at school, you could pass it along to a parent or grandparent. Learn more about the current quarantine and isolation guidelines.

For more information, visit these resources:

Medical Vulnerability of Young Adults to Severe COVID-19 Illness | Journal of Adolescent Health

Support For Teens and Young Adults | CDC

Key Points

  • Colleges and universities may be operating differently because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • If you are in treatment for cancer or a cancer survivor, you may want to talk with your care team about your best options for school.
  • Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent COVID-19 infection.
  • Do not wait to seek medical care if you develop serious COVID-19 symptoms like trouble breathing or confusion.
  • Be sure to follow current quarantine and isolation guidelines if you have COVID-19.


Reviewed: April 2022