AMES, Iowa – Maia Farber suspected she was about to get some very bad news.
It was late 2020, and Farber was a second-year veterinary student at Iowa State University. She mentioned to her doctor during a routine physical at Thielen Student Health that she’d noticed a lump on her neck in recent months. The doctor performed an ultrasound, which led to a biopsy. Farber got a phone call from her doctor soon after saying she needed to come in as quickly as possible.
“I immediately knew from my experience at the vet hospital if a doctor calls, saying you need to come in right away, it’s usually not good news,” she said.
The diagnosis turned out to be papillary carcinoma, a form of thyroid cancer. Farber said everything became a blur in that moment. What would cancer mean for her studies and her dream of becoming a small-animal veterinarian? She could have taken a leave of absence from school until she had a better idea of what kind of treatment she’d receive.
But after consulting with faculty and administration at Iowa State, Farber decided to press on with her studies.
“I worked way too damned hard to get here. I’m not letting this stop me,” she recalled.
A little over two years later, she’s set to receive her veterinary degree on time and has plans to begin an internship in the ISU Hixson-Lied Small Animal Hospital.
A dream to become a veterinarian
Farber grew up in Los Angeles and discovered a love for animals at an early age. She worked in a veterinary clinic, first as a kennel attendant and a receptionist and then as a tech assistant. After finishing her undergraduate degree, she moved to Ames to enroll in the one-year biomedical sciences master’s program at the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine. She fell in love with Iowa State and Ames during the program and enrolled as a veterinary student the following year.
The demands of vet school proved challenging, but Farber said she made it through the first few semesters with help from faculty, clinicians and fellow students. That meant “study parties” with friends and inventing mnemonic devices based on inside jokes to help her keep track of the countless details veterinary students must memorize as part of the curriculum.
Then came the diagnosis.
Finding strength in the vet med community
Farber said she felt alone because she wasn’t aware of anyone else in a situation like hers, a student trying to finish a demanding program while simultaneously dealing with a major new health challenge.
The support she received from the community at the ISU College of Veterinary Medicine lightened the load, however. Faculty worked with her on scheduling classwork and exams, and her classmates helped her study and kept her spirits up with care packages. In a strange twist, she said the pandemic proved helpful because it moved her classes online, granting her more flexibility to schedule her classwork around her cancer treatment.
“The clinicians worked with me hand in hand every step of the way, and I managed to stay on top of everything,” she said. “I think that was one the semesters I had the best GPA in my four years of vet school.”
Farber had surgery to remove her thyroid in February 2021, which required a weeklong hospital stay. She now takes medication and has checkups every few months. She stayed on track to finish her degree and discovered a passion for surgery along the way. It started when she successfully conducted her first basic procedures, like spays and neuters, and progressed into something verging on obsession.
“I would find any excuse to run to the operating room, even if I’m not in on the surgery,” she said. “I just like to be in there to watch it.”
Following graduation, she’s looking forward to beginning a one-year rotating internship in the ISU Hixson-Lied Small Animal Hospital during which she’ll get hands-on experience in various specialties, including emergency surgery, anesthesia and radiology. After that, she hopes to become a board-certified small animal surgeon, a perfect fit that will allow her to use the skills she developed during all those extra hours observing in the operating room.
“It’s weird seeing my dreams come to fruition. It hasn’t hit me yet,” she said. “I haven’t fully grasped that I’m going to be a veterinarian in just a few short weeks.”