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Brave student defies odds to graduate after surviving cancer 3 times

Georgina Tankard at Westonbirt Arboretum after her treatment

Press release issued: 7 July 2022

A mature student diagnosed with three different types of cancer in 15 months has graduated from the University of Bristol.

Georgina Tankard learnt of the first diagnosis just two days before she was due to start her masters.

Despite everything, the mother of two achieved a distinction with the help of her “amazing” friends and family and the support of the University.

Today [July 7] she graduated in front of her husband and youngest daughter at the University’s Wills Memorial Building. She was last in the building’s Great Hall more than 30 years ago when she graduated from the University with her first degree.

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

She hoped the course would build on her understanding of children’s learning and mental health, so she could better help young people.

But the first of her breast cancer diagnoses in September 2017 – followed by an operation and five punishing weeks of radio therapy – put her dream on hold.

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

Mrs Tankard, from Emersons Green, South Glos, missed a semester of University but returned in the new academic year; worn out but determined.

Then came the letter: there was a lump in her other breast, containing a different type of cancer.

“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.”

  • Georgina Tankard in the Great Hall of the Wills Memorial Building before her graduation ceremony.

The determined student carried on studying with a reduced timetable, even as she once again underwent more surgery and radiotherapy. This was followed by hormone therapy which left her with “fatigue, horrible anxiety and headaches which lasted for days”.

During this time she had help from a “brilliant” counsellor at the University’s student counselling service, and also sought support through the NHS and a Bristol charity.

She said: “Cancer takes up a lot of time – I think I had over 100 appointments – but also a lot of headspace.

“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.

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

Soon Mrs Tankard was back to her studies full-time, finishing in June 2021 and receiving her distinction soon after. 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,” Mrs Tankard said.

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

  • Georgina in the Wills Memorial Building before her graduation ceremony.

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 to become 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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