‘Never give up’ - Mature student diagnosed with cancer three times defies odds to graduate in Bristol

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‘Never give up - pause to rest if you have to, but pursue your dream’

A mature student who was diagnosed with three types of cancer in just 15 months has defied the odds to graduate with her Masters from the University of Bristol.

Georgina Tankard, from Emersons Green, was first diagnosed just two days before she was due to start her Masters degree in Psychology of Education.

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But despite everything, she graduated on Friday (July 7) in front of her husband and youngest daughter - with a distinction to boot - at the Wills Memorial Building.

Georgina Tankard graduated with her Masters in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol on Friday (July 8). She achieved a distinction despite being diagnosed with three different types of cancer in just 15 months.Georgina Tankard graduated with her Masters in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol on Friday (July 8). She achieved a distinction despite being diagnosed with three different types of cancer in just 15 months.
Georgina Tankard graduated with her Masters in Psychology of Education at the University of Bristol on Friday (July 8). She achieved a distinction despite being diagnosed with three different types of cancer in just 15 months. | University of Bristol

Mrs Tankard was last in the building’s Great Hall more than 30 years ago when she graduated from the University with her first degree in the late 80s.

She had been a teacher and librarian when, aged 48, she decided to go back to University for a Psychology of Education Masters.

The mother-of-two is passionate about helping young people and hoped the course would build on her understanding of children’s learning and mental health.

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But in September 2017 a breast cancer diagnosis, followed by an operation and five weeks of radiotherapy, put her dream on hold.

Mrs Tankard was first diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2017, putting her dreams on hold, but she didn’t give up.Mrs Tankard was first diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2017, putting her dreams on hold, but she didn’t give up.
Mrs Tankard was first diagnosed with breast cancer in September 2017, putting her dreams on hold, but she didn’t give up. | University of Bristol

During the treatment Mrs Tankard also found a cancerous melanoma on her leg which had to be surgically removed.

She missed a semester of University but returned in the new academic year, ‘worn out but determined’.

Then came another huge blow: there was a lump in her other breast, this time containing a different type of cancer.

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“I just felt a bit sick,” Mrs Tankard said. “It was quite a lot more serious than the first breast cancer.

“But I knew what to expect this time. I was just like ‘okay, I’m back in the groove again.’ But this time I was a lot more informed, a lot more prepared.”

She carried on studying with a reduced timetable, even as she once again underwent more surgery and radiotherapy.

The hormone therapy that followed left her with “fatigue, horrible anxiety and headaches that lasted for days”.

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During this time she had help from a counsellor at the University’s student counselling service, who she described as ‘brilliant’.

Cancer takes up a lot of time – I think I had over 100 appointments – but also a lot of headspace,” Mrs Tankard went on.

“I get really emotional when I talk about it as my friends were just amazing.

“I’m a really independent person but I realised I needed help and they made sure they were there.

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“I had 40 radiotherapy sessions and I only did one alone. I called them my Team George.”

Mrs Tankard then went back to her studies full-time, finishing in June 2021 and receiving her distinction soon after.

Mrs Tankard now plans on becoming a children’s counsellor. ‘Now that I’m still here, I want to be useful,’ she said.Mrs Tankard now plans on becoming a children’s counsellor. ‘Now that I’m still here, I want to be useful,’ she said.
Mrs Tankard now plans on becoming a children’s counsellor. ‘Now that I’m still here, I want to be useful,’ she said. | University of Bristol

She wrote her dissertation – which she now hopes to publish – on pupils’ experiences transitioning from primary to secondary school.

“I was determined from the beginning that I wasn’t going to stop studying,” she said.

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What does she think others can take from her story? “Never give up, pause to rest if you have to, but pursue your dream.”

She added: “It’s amazing to graduate here today, with my husband and daughter, who have seen all the hard work I put in at the kitchen table over the four years. Plus the last time I was here was when I graduated in 1989.”

Mrs Tankard now plans on becoming a children’s counsellor.

“I feel that because I’m still here, I want to be useful,” she explained. “There’s a real need to improve children’s mental health at the moment, and it’s very important to me to help people.”

Sarah Purdy, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Student Experience at the University of Bristol and a GP, said: “Georgina’s will to learn under incredibly difficult circumstances is truly inspirational.

“We are so pleased that she is here today despite everything that has been thrown at her. Congratulations Georgina and the very best of luck with your next steps.”

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