Grad Earns Degree Amid Fight for Life
Molly Barnhart has learned far more during her college years than the diploma she accepts today can ever reflect.
When Barnhart crosses the stage at Carver-Hawkeye Arena, she does so as a cancer survivor—as a 23-year-old woman who, nearly three years ago, underwent a double mastectomy and chemotherapy and still managed to graduate from college in five years. She has even landed a sweet job in her field of interest.
The best part—Barnhart is as extraordinary as she sounds.
"I guess I got thrown into the real world a little earlier than I would have liked," she said. "There are some college experiences I missed out on and will never get back. But I'm more decisive than I used to be, more definitive. I don't take anything for granted."
Barnhart's ordeal began in the fall of 2010, a month into her junior year at Iowa State University. She was a new transfer from Kirkwood Community College, where the West Branch native had paid for her first two years of college. She was living away from home for the first time and thrilled with her new-found independence.
A month into her new life in Ames, Barnhart discovered a lump under her right breast.
"It kind of hurt to push on it," she said. "So I called my mom."
Shelley Barnhart, a radiology technician at Mercy Hospital in Iowa City, told her daughter it was probably nothing, but to be safe, she recommended that Molly call a doctor.
"So I did and talked with a nurse," Barnhart said. "She told me it was probably nothing, that 20-year-olds naturally have denser breast tissue."
The nurse recommended cutting down on caffeine and chocolate and the lump most likely would go away.
But it didn't.
Barnhart just happened to have her annual exam scheduled during Christmas break and mentioned the lump to her doctor. The doctor checked it and left the exam room. When the doctor returned, she delivered the news: It was probably nothing, but could Barnhart set up an ultrasound that afternoon?
"It was the last Friday of Christmas break," Barnhart said. "I was planning to drive back to Ames on Sunday. So I said, ‘Yeah.'"
News from the radiologist, however, was a bit unsettling: "It looks kind of weird, but it's probably nothing."
At this point, Shelley Barnhart wanted to err on the side of caution and sought a second opinion for her daughter. A general surgeon recommended a biopsy.
"He said it's probably nothing, but it also means that because it's kind of weird looking, it might never go away," Molly Barnhart said. "It would be a red flag on any ultrasound or mammogram I ever had."
Molly opted for the biopsy and called her professors, promising to be back on campus in a few days. Early that Tuesday morning, Barnhart underwent surgery—the first she'd ever had. When she woke up, her mom was at her side.
"I could tell that she had been crying," Barnhart said. "She told me, ‘You have ductal carcinoma.' I didn't even know what that meant. I said, ‘OK,' and fell back asleep."
When Barnhart woke, she heard the word "cancer" and little else.
At the time, doctors didn't think the cancer had spread beyond its original point. More tests, however, revealed it was an aggressive form of cancer and estrogen receptor positive, which means it needs estrogen to grow. That's why today, Barnhart takes a medication that blocks estrogen that has caused her to begin menopause, including hot flashes and weight gain.
In the days after the initial diagnosis, Barnhart pondered her options.
"I was just kind of numb to it all, like it was happening to someone else," she said. "I really didn't feel too many emotions at the time because I think I was trying to distance myself as much as possible, to just say to myself, ‘These are the facts and this is what is going to happen.'"
Although doctors told her she could keep one breast, chances were high that it would need to be removed within the next 10 years. Barnhart made her decision.
"I just said, ‘Take them out,' " she said. "I didn't want to risk something coming back again."
Looking back, Barnhart said the worst part was not what happened to her, but how it affected the people she loves. Her boyfriend—now her fiancé—attended every doctor visit with her but to this day, doesn't like to talk about it. Her mom was her confidant and the person she made difficult decisions with. Her dad was devastated.
"I think it's a manly thing, they think they are supposed to protect us," Barnhart said. "But there was nothing he or my fiancé could do."
Shelley Barnhart, who was treated for malignant melanoma five years ago, said having cancer herself was nothing like watching her daughter battle the disease.
"It's a whole different story," she said.
Eventually, Barnhart withdrew from ISU. On Feb. 14, 2011, she underwent a double mastectomy. Today, she celebrates Valentine's Day on Feb. 13 and blacks out Feb. 14 in her planner.
"If anything, it's the one day of the year I throw myself a pity party," she said.
The surgery to remove her breasts lasted six hours. The weeks of recovery that followed, she said, were excruciatingly painful. But worse than the pain was the sight of her chest the first time the doctor removed the bandages.
"There was just nothing there. I didn't even look like a boy," she said. "I looked alien. It cut straight down from my neck to my pelvis, just scars. And they were ugly."
Surgery also revealed that the cancer had spread. Two months later, Barnhart began chemotherapy. By then, she had gone back to work at Eldon C. Stutsman Inc., an agricultural-based company in Hills where she interned the summer before. It's also the place where she will be selling fertilizers and chemicals to farmers after graduation.
"I was so bored at home," Barnhart said. "I needed something to do."
The pace was tough, but her employer understood. She took Wednesdays off for chemotherapy, came back to work on Thursdays and generally made it to noon on Fridays before she was too weak and nauseous to go on. But she never lost heart.
"Molly is a great girl and a terrific person" said Steve Meyerholtz, agronomy manager at Eldon C. Stutsman Inc. "She always had a positive attitude through that trying time. But Stutsman is a small company and we treat our employees like family and support them through the challenges they face. We tried to accommodate her through the chemo and school schedule. Now she is coming to work for us full time."
Barnhart applied to UI in April, and by her 21st birthday in May, she was bald from the chemotherapy.
For Barnhart, losing her hair was the worst part of the ordeal.
"I cared a lot more about losing my hair than I ever did about losing my boobs," she said. "It just seems like it's such a big part of who you are. It's crazy to think that you would associate it with your personality, but that's kind of what I thought—that I wouldn't be the same after I lost it."
Barnhart realized she had changed when she returned to college at UI in fall 2011. Her experience with cancer had changed her outlook on life.
"I lost a lot of empathy for people who used staying out late partying as an excuse for not getting something done," she said. "It was kind of frustrating to hear people complain about these little things when they didn't even know what I had been through."
But she began to open up, share her story, and make friends.
Shelley Barnhart said no matter how rough it got for her daughter, Molly managed to find joy in the moment and make other people laugh.
"She is very strong and very brave," she said. "We're so proud of her for sticking to her goals even though life threw her a curveball."
Lon Moeller, associate dean of the UI undergraduate programs in the Tippie College of Business, said he was most impressed with Barnhart's positive attitude and infectious spirit.
"We never heard her feel sorry for herself, which is remarkable for a college student facing what she did," he said. "One of things she benefited from was having great academic advisers and supportive staff who helped keep her on track so she could graduate (today)."
Still, Moeller acknowledged that it was Barnhart who really made her own pathway.
"Everything she talked about was positive and future-oriented," he said. "That's a great message for commencement—that your best days are ahead."
Barnhart, who is graduating from UI today with degrees in marketing and finance, admits there are times the fear of cancer returning consumes her. That's why she is living her life with purpose.
"I don't want to have any regrets because if this was to come back worse or with a vengeance," she said, "I don't want to have any regrets about anything I didn't do."