At age 37, Elizabeth Nichols is a non-traditional college student. As someone battling stage four colon cancer while in veterinary school, she is defying the odds.
“ This was where I wanted to be. I was so devastated by my diagnosis, that I just concentrated all my energy on school,” she said. “I’d rather be here, having to run and throw up from being on chemo, vs. being at home, thinking, ‘Am I going to die?’ I begged the administration here to let me keep coming, no matter what. If I lost my will, then I definitely wouldn’t have anything.’”
Nichols has three dogs and three cats of her own, and has wanted to be a veterinarian ever since she was a little girl.
“ I wasn’t around enough animals for my liking,” she said. “I did not grow up on a farm. But I was always taking in strays and that sort of thing.”
But when she entered the University of North Alabama after high school to earn her Bachelor’s degree, she studied public relations and professional writing. After she married her husband, Cameron, she began working at a dentist’s office in Florence.
“ I quit my job when I was 30 and decided to come back to get my pre-reqs in order to get into vet school, so I spent two years just trying to get in,” she said. “When I got my acceptance letter, I think I cried. It was amazing. It was surreal.”
A life-changing discovery
Attending vet school is a full-time job, as Nichols said she and her classmates spent nearly 40 hours each week for three years in class before starting clinical rotations. Nichols began the veterinary program at Auburn in the fall 2013 semester and began her clinical rotation in March 2016.
“ I was kind of sick the whole time, just mildly sick,” she said. “I thought I had kind of gotten stressed out, run down, that sort of thing. My diagnosis was the first week of my clinics.”
Nichols noticed her abdomen was swelling, so she went to her doctor for an ultrasound. The doctor found a tumor in her uterus.
“ I went to UAB to have a hysterectomy, and it had metastasized to my ovary as well,” she said. “The fluid in my abdomen had cancer cells in it. So I went from thinking I had a benign issue to having advanced cancer.”
She missed a month of school surrounding her hysterectomy, then underwent 12 rounds of chemotherapy at East Alabama Medical Center while attending class as much as she could.
“ My classmates were a huge help,” Nichols said. “My attendance was spotty on rotations. It’s a lot of hard work, so you really have to work together as a team for it to be what it’s supposed to be and everybody be able to have time to rest and whatnot. And I really couldn’t do my part. They were just awesome about helping me and not judging me. Before I started my chemo treatments, they gave me a big gift bag full of stuff. It was really nice.”
Part of the Auburn family
Dr. Elaine Coleman, associate professor of veterinary anatomy and neuroscience, taught Nichols during her first year as a vet student, prior to Nichols’ diagnosis. Coleman described Nichols as “a very giving person.”
“ Sometimes, she would come up to me after class and talk about wanting to help some of the other people in the class. She was always thinking about others,” she said. “I called her my rock. It’s a tough curriculum, and she was calm – not easy to do always with the first-year curriculum.”
Nichols said she “couldn’t have asked for better support” from the Auburn students and faculty who took her out to dinner, gave her money and expressed kindness in other ways during her chemo treatments.
She is especially grateful to Associate Dean of Academic Affairs Dan Givens for allowing her to walk with her classmates in the May graduation ceremony.
“ Basically, I begged Dr. Givens, ‘Please let me walk with my class,’ and he said, ‘We’ll make it happen,’” Nichols recalled.
Nichols is in the midst of her 25 weeks of clinical rotations, and hopes to complete them by the end of this year. When she does so, Nichols will officially hold a veterinary degree from Auburn.
She and her husband recently purchased land in Dadeville and are in the process of moving from their home in Athens. After graduation, Nichols hopes to work for a small animal general practice in the Auburn area.
“ I didn’t apply anywhere else,” she said. “I’ve wanted to go to Auburn ever since I was a kid. I knew I was taking a risk by only applying to one school, but Auburn is the only place I wanted to go. Auburn as a community has lived up to the reputation it has, as well as the vet school. I couldn’t have asked for a better veterinary experience.”
Nichols was in remission, but a checkup Friday revealed signs that the cancer is recurring, which may lead to more treatments. The battle is not over yet for the veterinary student.
She has a page on the crowdfunding site YouCaring titled “Help Elizabeth Nichols financially survive cancer,” at youcaring.com, where visitors can donate money in any dollar amount to help pay for her medical expenses.
“ She is just a really remarkable individual,” Coleman said. “In the face of everything she’s been through, her attitude is incredible. She’s always been focused on her goal of becoming a veterinarian. She’s a great role model for all of us.”