Classes were just starting this semester when Maia Farber got the news. Bad news as it turns out.
Farber, a second-year veterinary student, learned she had cancer – Follicular variant of Papillary Carcinoma, what is commonly referred to as thyroid cancer.
After the shock and anger had passed, Farber went immediately for treatment. She underwent a full thyroidectomy in early February but was quickly readmitted to the hospital because she was symptomatically hypocalcemic.
Now Farber has returned to her studies in the College of Veterinary Medicine as well as continuing to receive treatments.
“Luckily for me, with the pandemic making our lectures online, my schedule has been minimally affected,” she said. “I am in touch with all of my professors and if something should arise regarding my medical care, they are all willing to work with me to ensure I am still able to succeed.”
The ability to continue with her studies is a close second in her priority list behind her health.
“There was no doubt in my mind I would continue with my studies,” Farber said. “I remember telling Dr. (Monica) Howard that I worked way too hard to get into vet school so I wouldn’t let cancer stop me.”
A California native, Farber earned her undergraduate degree at California State University, Northridge. She then completed the one-year biomedical science master’s program at Iowa State and took a year off before she gained entry to the College of Veterinary Medicine in the DVM program.
In that year, she worked at a specialty, emergency small animal practice. Here Farber was exposed to a number of veterinary specialties with surgery grabbing her interest. After she graduates from Iowa State, she hopes a surgical residency is in her future.
In the meantime, Farber is concentrating on both her health and studies. Her doctors have recommended she reduce her stress load, which may be causing her calcium levels to fluctuate. She gets a blood test once a week to monitor those levels because if she becomes hypocalcemic again she will need to have calcium and magnesium infusions.
She is also on a strict regimen of medications. Throw in the added complication of veterinary medicine education coursework and reducing stress may prove to be difficult.
But Farber says the support she has received from faculty, classmates and friends has helped in that regard.
“It was very comforting to learn I had options of continuing my studies full time, go part time or take a medical leave,” she said. “I’ve had overwhelming support from staff and my classmates.”
Farber has been open with others about her illness. When she first received her diagnosis, she felt alone and despite support from family and friends, there was no one to speak to about what she was feeling.
“I wanted to speak to a professional student, someone who understands the caliber of being in a professional program, getting a cancer diagnosis and continuing their education without going on leave,” she said.
“I wanted to know if this was possible.”
Today, Farber is that student. Her story has appeared in Vet Candy, an online source “for everything vet med.”
“The reason I want to spread awareness and tell my story is because you never know who is listening,” she said. “Not everyone is as vocal as I am with their health. Everyone copes with these situations differently, but I don’t want anyone to feel like they’re alone in this.”
Farber’s positive attitude is infectious and that positive attitude remains despite her illness and the typical stress of veterinary classes.
“I remind myself that I worked very hard to get to this stage in my life,” she said. “I have a loving fiancé who is here with me every step of the way. I have friends and family who are always there to catch me when I fall or to remind me to keep moving. I have found countless support groups.
“There hasn’t been a day yet when I say I can’t go on.”