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College rigid on cancer patient's request

Maybe not enough administrators at Chestnut Hill College know what it’s like to fight cancer. If they did, how could they deny a student named B. Elizabeth Furey?

Maybe not enough administrators at Chestnut Hill College know what it's like to fight cancer.

If they did, how could they deny a student named B. Elizabeth Furey?

In July, Furey, 28, will finish the final three credits required for her master's degree in clinical and counseling psychology. She had hoped the school would allow her to hear her name called as she strode across the graduation stage on May 12, to the cheers of her family and friends.

However, Chestnut Hill has a policy that no student may cross the stage until his or her courses are complete. So Furey isn't permitted to walk until May 2013.

The problem is, Furey is sick with a rare form of Hodgkin's lymphoma, a blood cancer. There's a chance that, this time next year, she will be too ill to participate in graduation. And, although she won't dwell on it, there's also a chance she won't be here at all.

"We just don't know," says Furey, who grew up in Doylestown and was working as a schoolteacher in Florida when she was diagnosed in 2006. She's now back in Doylestown, where she counsels victims of violence.

"I try to live as though everything will be OK. But in reality, it's an unknown."

For about 85 percent of people with Hodgkin's, the cancer is curable. Sadly, Furey falls into the 15 percent for whom the disease is recurrent. Since her diagnosis, she's had many setbacks. After the last one, in 2010, her parents were advised to prepare her "for a good death."

With a broken heart, Furey accepted her impending demise. She withdrew from Lesley University in Cambridge, Mass., where she'd completed 34 credits toward a master's degree in counseling and clinical psychology. She moved back to Doylestown so her family could care for her. She said goodbye to friends and tried to find peace in her remaining days.

Then, a miracle. Her New York-based oncologist, Owen O'Connor, enrolled her in an experimental study that extended her life. Feeling reborn, Furey wanted to finish her master's degree, but closer to home.

Chestnut Hill College accepted 12 of the master's credits that Furey had earned in Cambridge, then another 12 when she proved to be a stellar student. In the last two semesters, Furey completed clinical work that takes most students three semesters to finish. She wanted to make as much progress as possible while she was feeling well.

"The image of different milestones keeps me going," she says. "This past year, I would picture myself walking across that stage at graduation and hearing my name called. I would picture my family cheering. It got me through some very hard days."

In January, Furey learned of Chestnut Hill's stringent graduation policy, which is different from the policies of many other colleges.

St. Joe's, for example, allows students to walk at graduation if they have no more than two courses to complete. La Salle and Temple have similar policies. La Salle, in fact, once held a private graduation ceremony for a terminally ill woman whom everyone knew would not live to complete her final classes.

"Her family was there, her professors were there, the college dean was there," says La Salle spokesman Jon Caroulis. "We wanted to applaud her hard work. It was beautiful."

Furey and oncologist O'Connor wrote to Chestnut Hill's dean of academic affairs, Kenneth Soprano, explaining the unpredictability of Furey's cancer and requesting flexibility.

Furey "has seen most, if not all, of the new and old therapies for Hodgkin's," O'Connor wrote. "There is a point that nothing more will keep back the disease."

He added, delicately, "I encourage you to allow her the opportunity to walk in the ceremony this May as this could be [the] only time that she would be recognized for her academic accomplishment."

But the school wouldn't budge.

I hoped someone at Chestnut Hill could explain the reason for the rule. Had past students in similar situations walked the stage, then never finished their course work? Had other students griped? But school spokeswoman Kathleen Spigelmyer offered no specifics.

As for Soprano, he didn't return my calls. But within a few hours of my contacting his office, he emailed Furey with a compromise:

She could wear a cap and gown, carry a banner for the school and sit with her classmates at graduation. But she would not hear her name called nor walk the stage in recognition of her work.

Furey says she will politely decline the offer.

"It feels like a tease," she says, akin to being permitted to stand on a porch and look inside a window where others are having a wonderful time at a party.

She has accepted Chestnut Hill's decision. But she hopes the school will rethink its policy for future students in similar situations.

I feel for Furey and her family. When faced with chronic illness, many families learn to "lean into joy" — as someone once described the process of celebrating life's happy moments, because you never know when a sorrowful one is coming.

This certainly could have been a lean-able moment.

And I feel for the families of three young people named Eric, Anne and Adrienne — Hodgkin's patients whom Furey befriended through an online support group after she was diagnosed.

Like Furey, the trio began master's programs while fighting Hodgkin's. But all three succumbed to their cancer before they had chance to graduate.

"Eric's mom told me, 'You'll be the one who gets the degree for all of them,' " says Furey. "I was going to accept my degree in their honor." n

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