Ariella Scott, 26, stood anxiously on the side of the stage at Charles F. Dodge City Center in Pembroke Pines, Florida, on Sept. 8 — waiting for her name to be called.
In just a few minutes, she would be receiving her associate of science degree in medical billing and coding from Keiser University.
For the past three years, Scott had been completing her college courses online from her home in Fort Worth. The commencement ceremony marked the first time she’d been to an in-person school event in Florida.
One by one, Scott’s class members walked the stage to receive their degrees.
Finally, she heard her name — Scott walked across the stage with a smile.
From the audience, Scott’s 4-year-old daughter, Alleira, and her mother, Celines Santiago, cheered her on. They also made the flight from Fort Worth.
At that moment, Scott knew she had also accomplished something uncommon: She earned a college degree while battling stage 4 breast cancer.
In the early months of 2020, Scott began to feel pain accumulating in her breasts. At the time, her daughter, Alleira, was 4 months old and breastfeeding.
Hoping to calm Scott’s nerves, Santiago assured her that the pain was most likely from breastfeeding. But after self-examining, Scott knew it was much more.
A mammogram and biopsy in June of that year confirmed her suspicions. At age 23, Scott was diagnosed with breast cancer, which is rare among women her age.
In the U.S., about 4% of women diagnosed with breast cancer are younger than 40.
However, in the past few years, there has been an increase in the prevalence of breast cancer in young women. The number of early-onset breast cancer cases increased by 7.7% from 2010 to 2019, according to a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Immediately after her diagnosis, Scott underwent her first round of chemotherapy. Her mother stood by her side.
“During her first appointment, I just wanted to go in a corner and cry until I couldn’t cry no more,” Santiago said. “But I had to show her I was strong, and it was a hard pill to swallow.”
Cancer support organizations in Tarrant County:
Pushing herself forward
One of the hardest parts of treatment for Scott was witnessing her skin peel and her hair, nails, eyelashes and eyebrows fall out.
To keep herself distracted, Scott decided to pursue her associate degree. But not all of her family supported the idea.
“In the beginning, I was not supportive,” Santiago said. “I was concerned it would put too much on her plate and overwhelm her. I felt it would take too much energy.”
Determined to accomplish her goal, Scott enrolled in Keiser’s online program for medical assisting after completing her first two sessions of chemotherapy,
It wasn’t easy to balance life, cancer and school. The spreading cancer, a brain tumor and chemotherapy increased pain throughout her body,,Scott said.
“I started getting really bad headaches,” she said. “It felt like an elephant was stomping on my head. It was a lot going on. It didn’t feel normal.”
As Scott continued chemotherapy, she was unable to complete the clinicals required for Keiser’s curriculum. With no choice but to pivot, she switched to the billing and coding program.
“There were a couple classes I was failing, because I didn’t know where to start,” Scott said. I had to retake three classes because they were incomplete. It was just so much, being a mom and dealing with this. I was in shock.”
Scott found support for her success among her professors and from her family and boyfriend, who encouraged her to complete her education at her own pace, she said.
“Walking that stage was great, and I enjoyed it,” Scott said. “It would’ve been better if all my family was there, instead of just my mom and my daughter. But, when I came back home, they all gave me a little surprise.”
Now, looking at her degree, Scott sees the accomplishment as the beginning. She plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree and work in the health care industry.
But for now, she will continue to undergo chemotherapy and take it each day at a time, she said.
“I’m absolutely looking to see where I want to go from here,” she said. “Honestly, I shouldn’t be here right now with stage 4 and a brain tumor. I truly believe it is my faith and the prayers to God that I am still here today.”
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