“Not Graduating Is Not an Option”: Phoenix Student Fights Cancer While Finishing Her BSN

It took a while for Loni Smith to realize she wanted to become an RN. Now that she’s almost there, the San Tan, Arizona, mom isn’t going to let anything stand in her way, not even cancer.

Loni had gone back to school in her mid-thirties after she found herself feeling unfulfilled in her career as a dental assistant. Nursing had been in the back of her mind for years.

“My son was really sick when he was little,” she explained. “He was in and out of the hospital a lot and had fantastic nurses. I remember them to this day, and I told myself that one day I could do that.”

After completing her general education courses at a community college, Loni enrolled in the Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degree program at Chamberlain University’s Phoenix campus in 2015.

“From day one, I felt that I had the support of the staff, my professors and my cohort. If anything’s going to happen to you, it’s going to happen in nursing school,” she said with a laugh.

And it did. Work, school and family obligations competed for her attention. Compressed discs and bone spurs on her spine made sitting in class difficult ­– but her long commute put most pain medications out of the question. A standing desk at Chamberlain helped, but doctors advised her to lose weight quickly in order to avoid extensive back surgery. Loni opted for gastric bypass, returning to class just a few days after release from the hospital.

Ten months later, just when the end of her program was in sight, Loni discovered a swollen lymph node. In October 2017, one week before the start of her final capstone course, she received the diagnosis of stage 4 non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Along with shock and fear, another feeling emerged – the determination to finish her nursing degree. “I met with my professors and clinical coordinator,” she said. “I told them, ‘Not graduating is not an option. I didn’t just go through the last two-and-a-half years for this to stop me.’ They were so supportive, so caring, like a family.”

Classmates pulled together in a community of care to encourage and support her. Faculty held her to the same academic standards as other students but also allowed some flexibility with deadlines to help accommodate the rigors of chemotherapy.  

The biggest challenge came from the course’s clinical component. Phoenix campus professor Ellen Poole, PhD, RN, CPAN, CNE, explained that chemotherapy weakens the immune system, leaving individuals more open to illness, infection and other complications.

“Our concern was Loni’s safety,” she said. “We were constantly re-evaluating the situation, but as long as she was safe and met the guidelines, we did everything we could to support her.”

With the official sign-off of her oncologist, Loni was able to participate in her clinical rotations, but she needed to take special precautions. She herself wore a mask at times, and she was placed on the floor with nurses who were not caring for patients whose condition required caregivers to use gowns, masks and gloves.

Over the eight weeks of the course, she spent four days in clinicals in between three rounds of chemo. She finished the class with an A- and crossed the stage for her graduation in early January. “It was rough, but the support I had from Chamberlain made the difference,” Loni said. “Having their support and knowing they were not only rooting for me but really doing what they could to help me finish – it was amazing. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.”

For now, she’s focusing on her health as she waits to go through the final two rounds of chemo. Once that’s done, she plans to conquer her next challenge – the NCLEX® licensing exam.

And after that? Maybe a job as an oncology nurse. “I had a nurse when I was in the hospital in December who had gone through cancer. Her words of encouragement meant so much to me, because she knew exactly what I was going through,” she explained.

“After everything is said and done, I’m hoping that my experience will allow me to give something special back to my patients that not everybody can.”

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