Nursing student overcame thyroid cancer while completing degree

A young adult working in the health care field, Abigail Bauer, of Allentown, hadn’t considered she would ever be the one sitting in the patient chair.

Beginning her college journey at Penn State Berks, a long-standing tradition in her family, Bauer chose to pursue her bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and disorders. And although she loved her time at the Berks campus, she decided to continue her education at the Penn State University Park campus.

After receiving her degree in 2014, she worked as a cognitive rehabilitation specialist at a brain injury rehab center. Despite this job being a good start for Bauer after college, she had nagging thoughts that she had undermined her capabilities by not majoring in nursing instead.

“I was not happy, and something in the back of my mind kept thinking that nursing was the right path for me,” she said. “So, I quit my job, moved back in with my parents, started taking prerequisite courses for nursing school, and got a job at the hospital as a tech in a MICU/SICU.”

While working for three years as a hospital technician in the mobile intensive care unit/surgical intensive care unit (MICU/SICU), Bauer pursued her associate degree in nursing at Northampton Community College and received her registered nurse (RN) license. She then accepted a job as an RN at Lehigh Valley Hospital Muhlenberg in Bethlehem and began the RN to BSN program offered through Penn State World Campus.

But the path to completing her Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) would be nothing short of a difficult road filled with unexpected turns.

About seven weeks into her program, in March 2021, Bauer woke up with an unexpectedly swollen neck. After two weeks filled with multiple doctor appointments and examinations, she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. Bauer’s doctor moved her quickly toward surgery in April, but with risks of vocal cord paralysis due to the nerves that control the vocal cords being attached to the thyroid, Bauer had obvious concerns about the surgery.

Knowing the risks, Bauer decided to undergo a total thyroidectomy in April 2021. Although all she could do was whisper at first, the surgery was successful. She slowly regained her voice after six months.

Bauer said that completing her BSN throughout her diagnosis and treatment was incredibly stressful, but she holds a lot of gratitude for her nursing instructor Tiffany Patton. Patton helped Bauer work through the most challenging time of her life and kept her on track.

“It was hard going to school, taking care of a new puppy, working full-time hours, and getting treatment. But my school work was a positive outlet for me to put my energy,” Bauer said. “I was very fortunate that I had Patton. I told her about my situation, that I was having all these complications, and I couldn’t finish some of the work by the course deadlines. But she was so accommodating and kind, and I don’t think I could have done it if it wasn’t for her.”

Bauer said the experience has allowed her to become more empathetic, helping her to become a better nurse. By experiencing many of the emotions she felt as a patient, Bauer has been able to reflect on her own perspective and create a more valuable human interaction with her patients.

“I work with people on the absolute worst days of their life, and I think my diagnosis really gave me a better patient perspective and more empathy with them. They [patients] need more compassion and empathy while they’re with us, and for me, I didn’t realize that to its full extent until I personally dealt with my diagnosis,” Bauer said. “If it wasn’t for the support of my family and friends, I (am) not sure I would have been able to get through it.”

Bauer’s condition is now stable, and her cancer is in remission. She will undergo testing every three months for the next two years to monitor for the possible spread of the cancer, but despite the challenges she has faced, Bauer maintains her positive outlook on life and has goals of her own to meet the ever-evolving needs of the health care landscape. She recently passed her critical care RN certification and completed an advanced trauma course.

In the next year, Bauer hopes to pursue a Doctor of Nursing Practice, offered online through Penn State World Campus with courses taught by Ross and Carol Nese College of Nursing faculty.

While Bauer moved back in with her parents as she began taking her courses and dealing with cancer, other Penn State World Campus students are greatly in need of scholarships. Consider how you can help.