While Battling Breast Cancer, ESU Graduate Nikki January Becomes Inspiration to Students of All Ages
Nikki January could no longer bear seeing the large bald spots on her head. So she grabbed a razor, leaned over the sink in her bathroom and shaved off the remaining long, wavy, dark strands.
That look became hers. She never wore a wig, hat or scarf.
In the following days and weeks, though, January knew people couldn’t help but glance her way. She got hit with questions, too.
“I think there were a lot of people on campus who didn’t know what I was going through and thought I was the crazy lady who shaved my head,” January said. “Now [after they read this story] I think maybe they’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s why she was bald.’
The baldness, which included January eventually losing her eyebrows, eyelashes and even her nose hair, was a result of intense chemotherapy to treat her advanced, Stage II breast cancer that was discovered in December 2012 and required a double mastectomy in January 2013.
“I did have a few students come up and ask if I had shaved my head for a friend, and then I had the opportunity to say I was going through cancer treatments,” January said. “People didn’t expect someone going through that to show up on campus.”
January, who graduated from who graduated in December from East Stroudsburg University, did a lot more than just show up on campus. After the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes and was found in small traces in her blood stream, January had her surgery but still kept her commitment for the 2013 spring semester and beyond at ESU.
The East Stroudsburg resident had a 15-credit course load last spring and earned all A’s despite going through intense chemotherapy. Then during the fall semester when she underwent radiation treatments, she took eight credits and again got a 4.0.
In fact, when you combine her coursework from Northampton Area Community College (79 credits) with her 64 credits from ESU (which she earned since transferring to ESU in 2011), she never got anything less than an A. Her hard work and dedication culminated with her receiving her bachelor’s degree in biology on Saturday, December 14, when she became the first person in her immediate family to graduate from college.
“Sometimes looking back, I’m not really sure how I did it,” January admitted. “There’s a whole lot of talk about strength when people are going through something extreme in their lives. But a lot of it is just necessity. You put your head down and do what you have to do to get through it. Sometimes you even surprise yourself. But I just took it in little steps and would say, ‘My next goal is just getting to class and then walking to the car.’”
With her surgical drains still dangling from her body, January arrived on campus to tell her professors her situation and explained she’d miss the first week of classes. She was also missing her appetite and soon thereafter, was hit countless other unpleasant symptoms.
“Concentration and memory were huge challenges throughout the past year, too,” she admitted. “But if you’ve got something to look forward to, it goes a long way to helping your recovery.”
What January, who also worked at a gas station throughout her treatment, looked forward to the most was school at ESU. For years she thought about going to college, but couldn’t. Then when she separated from her husband a few years ago and her daughter was living on her, January knew it was time to move forward. So she registered at NCC, where she began in the summer of 2008 and took 79 credits.
Once she finished her associate degree at NCC in the spring of 2011, she moved on to enter ESU for the fall semester. Even though she was enduring a life-threatening challenge and had so many adverse side effects from the strong medications, her time at ESU, she said, flew by.
“My academic years have been the happiest of my life,” January said. “I love learning. I love the camaraderie I share with other students. I love meeting my instructors and developing relationships with people who have common interests. This is has been a good experience for me. Even with the breast cancer, I consider the situation I was in a blessing. School here gave me a constant reminder that your life isn’t over. It gave me a purpose and a positivity that someday the treatment would be over, and I could move forward.”
The place January hopes to move next is graduate school. Eventually she’d like to get her Ph.D. Although she is still working, she is allowing herself to take the rest of the year off from her studies. She’ll start researching grad schools next month.
Her advisor, Matthew Wallace, Ph.D., ESU associate professor of biological sciences, who had January in two classes, continues to be amazed by all she has pulled off.
“She excelled and her performance is really unbelievable,” Wallace said. “What she has achieved just doesn’t happen that often, especially with a difficult major like biology. It would be amazing even if she were doing it without cancer.”
January’s decision to begin college didn’t come without some hesitation, self-doubt and fear. Having not been in school in 20 years, she wasn’t certain she could handle it. But after she finished her first semester, she was hooked.
“I loved going back to school as someone who is older,” said January, who got a clean bill of health in November. “I really appreciated college. I think I really got more out of it than I would have when I was younger. When you’re older, you don’t think you have that mental sharpness to compete with people half your age. But hard work and determination helps you get those grades. I was delighted to know I could still hold my own.”
January did that and then some.