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Walden Magazine // Aug 01, 2019

How I Did It: Dr. Dahlia Connors '18, '12

How a two-time Walden graduate achieved her dreams while battling aggressive cancer

Dr. Dahlia Connors ’18, ’12.
Not many people would say that their dissertation kept them alive. But if it weren’t for Walden, Dr. Dahlia Connors ’18, ’12, a PhD in Public Health and Master of Public Health graduate, says she might not be here today.

In the summer of 2017, Connors began struggling to breathe, but it wasn’t until the fall—after she felt extreme pain in her neck—that she realized how serious her condition could be.

A CT scan revealed that she had a 12-inch tumor in her right lung, and she was diagnosed with stage 4 B1 thymoma, a cancer that begins in the thymus (a small organ under the breastbone that is part of the body’s immune system). But this shocking revelation wouldn’t stop Connors from achieving her PhD. She shares her story with us about completing her doctorate in the face of death.

AN UNSHAKEABLE GOAL: As devastating as the news of my cancer was, I was more troubled by the fact that it may have impeded me from completing my doctoral studies. I was in the dissertation phase, and I was determined to achieve my goals despite my diagnosis. My committee chair strongly advised me to file for a leave of absence, but I refused. I continued to write my dissertation despite the growing challenges of my condition. I told my chair that I didn’t know if I would live to see graduation, but I would work on my research until I couldn’t any longer.

OVERCOMING ADVERSITY: In March 2018, I underwent major surgery to remove the tumor. Afterward, I was diagnosed with a long-term neuromuscular disease called myasthenia gravis and was put on a ventilator. Throughout visits to the emergency room and lengthy stays in the intensive care unit, I continued to submit my work for review. My chair had concerns, but my doctoral studies were keeping me alive—my PhD was the very reason I continued to fight. Although my condition wasn’t improving and concerns for my health were high, I managed to finish my work and successfully defended my dissertation in September. A month later, I officially became a doctor.

CONTINUING TO FIGHT: Unfortunately, cancer has recently appeared in my paratracheal lymph nodes, and I had to undergo another surgery. My illness has made me unable to work and caused financial difficulties, but I am lucky to have a devoted partner who has helped ease my burdens. He booked us auto train tickets from New Jersey to Florida so that I could attend my commencement and hooding ceremony without having to fly, which would have made me too susceptible to infection. I have realized that despite adversity, determination is key. Never allow anything—not even threat of death—to stop you from fighting for your dreams.
— As told to Kyra Molinaro