Case study

How Fiona’s cancer inspired her studies

Fiona Henderson was in the second year of our online Psychology degree and was writing an essay on what stops women going to the doctor when they spot breast cancer symptoms. That’s when she found out she had breast cancer.

An unexpected struggle

Fiona was part way through the Health Psychology module when she received her diagnosis. She took eight months off while undergoing chemotherapy before returning to our course part time. She says module leader Dr Amy Baraniak was “incredibly supportive”.

But it was what happened when she returned to her studies that made her reassess her direction.

Fiona is based in Singapore. She had started our Psychology BSc (Hons) because she was interested in pain management, particularly the challenges faced by adolescents with chronic conditions. Both her children suffered from long-term illness when they were younger.

However, after her cancer treatment, she really struggled when she got back to studying. She explains: “I had serious issues with my memory. Things would go in one ear and out the other. I found it really difficult to assimilate information and my ability to process information was much slower.

“It has improved a lot in the last year or two but it has definitely taken time. But I do think that the studying has been enormously helpful with the whole recovery process.”

Fiona Henderson
Fiona Henderson

A new focus

Fiona’s struggles gave her the impetus to take a closer look at how cancer treatment can affect patients.

She explains: “The change in focus from pain management to psycho-oncology has come about not only from my own experiences but because I am now much more aware of the difficulties that many survivors go through while trying to return to ‘normal’ life.”

After successfully completing her BSc, and because of “the positive experience of this course and the fantastic support from particular tutors”, Fiona has gone on to study our Health Psychology MSc online. Her dissertation was on cognitive damage post chemotherapy.

She says: “I focused specifically on long-term Asian and Caucasian breast cancer survivors, so essentially looking at cultural differences/similarities in the psycho-social impact of ‘chemobrain’.

“I have learned so much, not only from the academic research, but also from survivors that I have talked to and interviewed during the process. I hope to continue with this research now that I have graduated.”

A student doing archery

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Why choose Derby?

The long-term illness of Fiona’s children was the catalyst for her stopping work for a while and then changing career direction. She chose to study our Psychology BSc (Hons) online because it offered her the flexibility she needed. And because we were one of the few online universities that offers both BSc and MSc Psychology degrees accredited by the British Psychological Society (BPS).

Studying wasn’t always easy for her. She says: “Once or twice I had to delay a module but most of the time it was manageable even though, at times, it was quite stressful.

“I have always worked for myself, so am quite disciplined in that respect. But I did find studying took up quite a lot of my time as everything took longer after the treatment.

“I really enjoyed the actual learning process and the support from tutors, particularly for the MSc, was invaluable. I couldn’t have done it without them.”

A prize winner

At her graduation, Fiona was awarded the Director of UDOL Prize for Special Merit in a Research Project. Fiona says: “I have really enjoyed my research project and was incredibly honoured to receive the prize. Overall, my experience with UDOL has been quite challenging at times but incredibly rewarding.”