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Class of 2020 Story: Conquering Cancer, Reaching My Dream

Amanda Hanley
The Class of 2020's Amanda Hanley during veterinary training at the CVM.

Class of 2020 Stories Each year, we reach out to our graduating class to share first-person reflections of their time at the CVM. The following story, written by the Class of 2020’s Amanda Hanley, launches this year’s series, which will run up to the May 8 oath and hooding ceremony.

Flashback to 2012. I just returned from two months abroad in Costa Rica, and I am entering the last quarter of my junior year at Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts. Life is great. I’m about to be a senior then head off to veterinary school, hopefully NC State, to fulfill my dream. 

Joke’s on me. One month later I get diagnosed with stage 3B Hodgkin lymphoma. My whole life flipped upside down in the matter of one sentence: “You have cancer.”

Now to the present day: April 2020. I am graduating veterinary school in two short weeks. That surreal feeling I got when I was first diagnosed with cancer is what I feel again now. 

How could I have come this far in such a short period of time? Am I really about to become a doctor? Yes, that is exactly what’s about to happen. I have achieved my biggest goal.

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I was 21. I was confused. I was healthy. How could I have advanced-stage cancer spreading throughout my body? I felt fine. Yeah, I had lost a little weight, but I was convinced it was due to the lack of arroz con pollo in my life since I returned home from Costa Rica. 

But, no. This was real.

I was shown my PET scan and it lit up like a Christmas tree. The cancer was everywhere. Stage 3B, I couldn’t believe it. That meant not only one of my lymph nodes was affected, but the cancer was spanning all the way across my abdomen. Who knew losing a little weight and maybe being a bit more tired was also factored into the diagnosis. It meant I was sick from the cancer, labeling me with the poorer prognostic indicator “B”. I remember looking to my right and my dad was just sobbing, but I couldn’t even cry at this point. it was surreal. It was just a nightmare. 

Amanda Hanley
Hanley during her cancer treatment.

Life with cancer became real when I sat down with the student services office at WPI and handed in my medical leave of absence paperwork. I would not be starting my senior year with all of my friends. I would be in Rhode Island living with my parents and commuting to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston every week to undergo chemotherapy. 

I was determined to stay on track as best as I could. I would not let cancer derail my life completely. I registered for three classes at my state school, the University of Rhode Island, for the summer and fall semesters to ensure I would not fall too far behind.

 It’s June 24, 2012, and I arrive at Dana-Farber for my first chemotherapy infusion. My parents are silent and I am numb. Everyone around me is trying their best to put on a smile and make this as positive of an experience as it can be. 

The port in my chest gets accessed for the first time and I remember tasting the saline in my mouth as it is flushed. I don’t know if I should laugh, cry or scream at this point. I am led back to a reclining chair and am administered  the chemotherapy drug widely known as “the red devil” — doxorubicin. Who doesn’t want to be pumped full of something dubbed “the red devil”?

A sickeningly red liquid passed through my port and wreaked havoc on my body. I know it was killing cancer cells, but that red juice also made me feel absolutely horrible; it definitely makes you thankful for anti-nausea medications. The time during the entire infusion is solemn and depressing. The room was silent, and it was like my parents couldn’t bear to make eye contact with me. The drive home is similar. I did not know how I was going to get through this. What if I didn’t respond to chemotherapy? What if I died before ever coming close to achieving my goals?

Thankfully, the remainder of my chemotherapy treatment drastically changed when an unexpected acquaintance turned into my rock, my best friend and my biggest supporter.  Who knew the girl I worked with scooping ice cream during the summertime would become exactly what I needed to make it through this horrible reality. 

As I cried while getting my head shaved, Veronica was there to remind me how beautiful I looked. As I winced receiving an intramuscular injection in my leg, she was right there to make sure I never got that “mean” nurse again that left a bruise. As I struggled to walk because of the neuropathy in my feet, she was there to give me a piggyback ride. 

When I couldn’t eat chocolate because of certain drugs I was taking, she was there to take all the chocolate off Rolos so I could at least enjoy the caramel. Trips to Dana-Farber were now filled with laughs, comforting bald head scratches and the best naps.

I did not know how I was going to get through this. What if I didn’t respond to chemotherapy? What if I died before coming close to achieving my goals?

I grew so much emotionally and mentally within the first few weeks of chemotherapy, I was ready to tackle classes at the University of Rhode Island. Each day I woke up, put on my wig, glued on some fake eyelashes and made my way out the door. 

Yes, I parked in a handicapped spot. Yes, it took me 30 minutes to walk what should’ve taken 10 minutes. But I was not giving up. I was responding well to chemotherapy and I was rocking it in school. I knew that after all of this was over I was going to come out a much stronger, positive and determined person.

Flash forward to Nov. 12, 2012. I receive a phone call: “Amanda, today was your last day of chemotherapy.” 

I could not believe it. I made it; my scans were clear. A few months later I returned to Worcester Polytechnic Institute to finish my bachelor’s degree. And you know what? I graduated on time with the rest of my class in May 2013. The amount of pride I felt was immense. I did not let something as awful as cancer get in my way. My cancer was undetectable in May 2012. I entered remission in November 2017. 

To say my time at NC State College of Veterinary Medicine was impacted by my battle with cancer is an understatement. From the day I received my acceptance letter to the day I receive my diploma, being a survivor has played an extremely important role. 

Class of 2020
Hanley (far right) with Class of 2020 classmates and friends Amanda Maxwell (far left) and Jordan Briggs (center).

My level of determination and perseverance knew no bounds. I knew if I could beat cancer, I could battle my way through a notoriously difficult curriculum. I knew my end goal of being a veterinarian was in sight and that I was more than capable of reaching it. 

Interestingly enough, when your life is put on the line it also puts a lot of things in perspective. It makes you realize that sweating the small stuff is pointless, being petty is a waste of energy and being a negative Nancy helps absolutely no one. 

So, as I watched some of my classmates struggle with their desire to be No. 1, I vowed to never put that pressure on myself. The bigger picture was to become a veterinarian and the path to get there did not have to be perfect. 

My life outside of veterinary school held just as much importance because I learned how precious all aspects of life were. Not taking things for granted, like walking around Lake Johnson or watching trash TV with my best friends were just as important, if not more, than the final examinations in my classes. 

Life is about living. When that has almost been ripped away from you, you never forget that.

Not only did the CVM allow me to achieve my goal of becoming a veterinarian, but it gave me the chance to meet some of the most inspiring, generous and caring people. Naturally being an introvert, I was scared I wasn’t going to make friends easily once I started veterinary school, but I was dead wrong. After being in school for not even a month, a group of three girls — Jordan, Amanda and Sahar — became my confidants, my support system and, most importantly, my best friends. 

Sharing my cancer journey with them for the first time wasn’t easy. It never is. It involved a lot of tears, hugs and, of course, a few laughs. From that moment on, those girls never left my side. Every health scare, every mental breakdown, every doctor’s appointment —  they were there to hold my sweaty hands and get me through it. There were never any questions asked, if something was going on in my life they were by my side telling me everything would be OK and even if it wasn’t that they were there to hold me up. 

Life is about living. When that has almost been ripped away from you, you never forget that.

I don’t think they understand that they single handedly got me through veterinary school and all of the hard life moments dispersed in between. The love, kindness, thoughtfulness and generosity of those girls will forever be unmatched. 

At the end of all of this, all I can really say is I am thankful for having cancer. Was it an awful experience? Absolutely. But I can’t neglect how it helped shape me as a person, how it aided in my growth, my perseverance, my dedication.

So, thank you, cancer. Thank you for getting me to where I am today — as Dr. Amanda Hanley. 

Amanda Hanley is native of Narragansett, Rhode Island. After graduation, she joins the veterinary staff at a small animal general practice and urgent care facility in her home state.