Ellen’s story: A year to remember

Like many college students, during my first years in school, I stressed over exams, juggled parenting with school work, and fretted over getting all my reading done. But, unlike many students, in my third year of college, I had to overcome more than I ever thought possible. This is my story.

Last September, in my third year at Rockhurst University, my doctor found a suspicious nodule on my thyroid. I knew I had nodules but was always told not to worry about them. So, when my doctor ordered another, more expensive and invasive test called a fine needle aspiration (FNA) I was a little irritated. I was in the beginning of a semester and working part-time; I didn’t have time for another medical test. Plus, even though I was told the FNA wasn’t a big deal, I was nervous. I’m one of those people who when they say “you’ll just feel a pinch,” I say, “that’s not a pinch!!”

Learning the diagnosis

Having survived the FNA I figured that would be the worst of it. I was wrong. I received a call 2 days later saying I needed to come into the office to discuss my results. I was told my test was inconclusive and there was a 30% chance my 9mm nodule was cancer. On top of hearing I could have cancer, I was dealing with my marriage, which was falling apart, I was looking for a place to live for my daughter and me, and I was attending school full time.

My doctor gave me two options: wait 6 months and retest (new biopsy) or have surgery to remove my thyroid. I decided to set up an appointment with a surgeon, still not sure what to do but thinking it’s better to have more information than less. At my appointment with the surgeon I decided the best option for me was surgery.

Making arrangements

I made arrangements to withdraw from classes but only after speaking with my professors, my counselor, two different advisors, financial aid, and our business office. The federal government would be happy to waive my Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), but I was warned I might have to pay back some of the aid I had received that semester. To be clear the ONLY reason I was able to withdraw and not lose my financial aid and scholarships is because I communicated with my advisors and financial aid. SAP is not something you play around with, if you do not meet the requirements, you will lose federal aid.

With school taken care of I made arrangements for a one night stay in the hospital and help during recovery. My amazing friends stocked my cabinets with soup, oatmeal, pudding, and applesauce so I would have easy foods during my recovery.

Preparing for treatment

Thankfully the surgery went as expected; my thyroid was removed along with the nodules. However, after spending a few days at home recovering, I received a call from my doctor telling me the nodules had been cancerous. The nodules were gone, but it was still a shock. Up until that moment cancer was a possibility, now, it was real.

I spent the next week and a half preparing for radiation in the form of a radioactive iodine pill. I also did some research online on my type of cancer and about treatments. What I discovered was some research claiming that the type of cancer I had, if small, might not require radiation! I called my doctor and together we decided I would forgo the treatment and instead monitor with sonograms every six months. While I was thrilled to skip radiation, I also learned we lose our own natural thyroid hormones much faster than we reabsorb the synthetic thyroid hormone.


It took months to feel anything that even resembled normal. I started my spring semester in a fog that I can’t even describe. Mainly because I don’t remember much that happened. I had registered for 15 credit hours before I knew I had cancer. I didn’t know what my recovery would be like, but I really thought by just going back to school and work like I had before, I would be back to normal soon enough. Not surprisingly I had to drop two classes and quit my job because I had no chance of catching up in the classes and no guarantee I could be consistent at work.

I studied day and night to get caught up in my remaining classes and was doing really well. Until I found out I was not meeting SAP because of the dropped classes. I was short one credit hour and would need to make it up during this semester and pay for one credit hour out of my own pocket, or I could take a 3 credit hour class over the summer and pay for that out of pocket. Either way I had reached the limit of available aid and if I wanted to keep my Federal Aid and scholarships, I would have to pay.

Reflecting on my journey

After a few hours of very dramatic ranting I realized this was not the worst. In fact nothing so far had been the worst. I’m not homeless, the cancer is gone, and I don’t cry when I have to go up stairs or walk to another building. Yes I have a lot of work to get through to finish this semester and keep my aid but I can do that. I am practicing creative budgeting, taking advantage of resources available in my community, and I put an immediate stop to all spending that wasn’t for bills or food. I don’t love this situation but I’m here, my daughter is still amazing, and I’m doing well in school.

Getting to this place has not been easy and not without mistakes and some heartache. I got here with help from so many people and by redefining the traditional model of success. My new model is being happy even when it looks like everything is falling apart. I try to laugh more, complain less, and know that sometimes the greatest achievement is getting out of bed and showing up.


Ellen GriffinAbout the author: Ellen Griffin is a 43-year-old mother studying at Rockhurst University as a full-time undergraduate student. She is majoring in English and Psychology.



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