Sometimes talking about a personal crisis is good for a person’s mind and soul. That was the case for Suffolk student and cancer survivor Casey O’Leary, who recently spoke at CancerCon, the premier oncology conference and social networking event for the young adult cancer movement.

“I loved the experience to meet so many other people and get the word out about being a college student while battling cancer,” said O’Leary. “I hope telling my story inspired others.”

O’Leary shared her experience as part of the presentation “Navigating College and Cancer” delivered by Michele Rosenthal, assistant dean of Sawyer Business School undergraduate programs, during the Denver conference, which brought together hundreds of cancer survivors, caregivers, and advocates for education and support.

Discovering she's not alone

“I brought Casey with me to show her that she is not alone and that there are many young cancer survivors out there just like her,” said Rosenthal

In her presentation, Rosenthal said that college students diagnosed with cancer need to create a strong support network, understanding that they can still complete their degrees. They also should create balance in their lives and learn to be their own best advocates, she said.


Rosenthal encourages students to reach out to campus resources such as Disability Services, Health Services, the Dean of Students Office, and the Office of Student Affairs as well as to academic advisers or favorite professors.

O’Leary, an honors student, had been diagnosed with a rare form of leukemia just before the start of her junior year in fall 2015. She was hospitalized for a 41-day stretch.

“I was sick, but I could still do work from my computer, so I immediately emailed my professors and told them my situation,” she said. “I really didn’t know what else to do.”

Rosenthal soon contacted O’Leary. During many years working in higher education, Rosenthal has helped countless young adults embrace the college experience while battling cancer or chronic illnesses

“Casey is a smart, strong and motivated young woman,” said Rosenthal. “She was committed to moving forward in her life and not allowing cancer to get in her way.”

Professors find creative solutions

Rosenthal worked with O’Leary’s professors, who created lesson plans and found a way for her to take three courses online. O’Leary successfully completed a reduced course load in the fall. When she returned to Suffolk in October, she began meeting with Rosenthal every other week. That connection between administrator and student continues today.

“Michele has done wonders in helping me along the way,” said O’Leary, who completed a full course load in the spring and reports that her cancer is now in remission. “She has become such a great adviser and friend. I can talk to her about anything, and she is always there to listen and give me information on whatever I need.

“I don’t believe I would be on schedule to graduate with my class if it wasn’t for her.”