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Doctoral graduate, a 14-year cancer survivor, pushes through treatments to pursue degree

Yvonne Daniely

Pursuing higher education is a step on the journey to achieving a professional goal. But for Yvonne Daniely, receiving her Ed.D. in Educational Leadership and attending Liberty University’s Commencement in May — two days before undergoing her second stem cell transplant in the past four years — was so much more. Earning her degree was a personal goal she chased through her painful battle with multiple myeloma, an incurable form of leukemia.

Daniely, 67, said reaching graduation meant the world to her.

“It meant that it can be done, there is a God, and when you are determined to put one foot in front of the other, you can do it,” she said.

Medical professionals affirmed Daniely’s decision to enroll with Liberty University Online Programs in 2019 as a wise one.

“My oncology team told me that going to school was one of the best things that I could have done for myself,” the New York native and current Atlanta resident said. “It redirected some of that self-indulgence that you go through when you’re sitting there getting your chemo drip.”

“Once you decide that you can have a can-do attitude, you can do it,” she added.

Through surgeries to remove tumors and countless radiation and chemotherapy treatments, she persevered, receiving A’s in an all but one of her courses and graduating with honors.

Daniely wasn’t sure she could attend her graduation, but was able to put off a CAR T-cell transplant procedure long enough to travel to Lynchburg with her husband, Kenneth and their daughter Ashley. When they arrived back home in Atlanta, she received the treatment.

CAR T-cell therapy is a type of immunotherapy called adoptive cell therapy. Doctors extract T cells (a type of white blood cell) from the patient’s blood and then add an artificial receptor to their surface. The receptor enables the modified cells to produce chemicals that kill cancer. Once they are infused back into a patient’s body through an IV, they begin multiplying and attacking tumor cells.

Although she was supposed to have the transplant in April, Daniely was determined to wait until she could walk the Commencement stage.

“I said, ‘No, I have to go to my Commencement and I’m not going to have this transplant until after Commencement,’” she said.

Ashley, Kenneth, and Yvonne Daniely during Commencement

As she reflects on her experience with Liberty, she is grateful for the excellence of the faculty who kept her on track in her educational pursuits.

“It’s amazing to know that your professors care for you, but they also encourage you,” she said. “You can have conversations away from the academics of it all and just have personal conversations and develop friendships, and that is what I was able to do.”

Daniely’s cancer battle began in 2008, while she was working for ExpressJet, a division of Delta Airlines in Atlanta. At the best, her doctors told her she could live five years. But determined to survive to continue to see her daughter, Ashley, further her own life and career, Daniely began setting education goals to keep her mind active and off of the heaviness of her prognosis.

She began by exploring areas of personal interest and decided to with her alma mater, Brenau University, to pursue a master’s degree in interior design (which she completed in 2018). While in the hospital recovering from her first stem cell transplant that same year, Daniely noticed Ashley’s tenacity, day after day, studying for her doctorate beside her mother’s bed. The next year, after hearing about Liberty’s vast array of online degree options, Daniely decided to pursue her doctorate in the education field, which she knew would be beneficial to the public speaking opportunities she occasionally has with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society in Atlanta.

While sitting in the hospital getting her chemo drip and sometimes in the infusion center in Atlanta, Daniely could often be seen working on papers and studying.

“I was very determined to get this degree, and I felt challenged but I also felt encouraged,” she said.  “In each class I took, I had a focus that was unbelievable … there was something that changed when I saw the determination of my daughter as she was sitting at my bedside writing. I knew then that I had to continue to be there for my family.”

Daniely hopes that through this educational pursuit undertaken while fighting for her life, she has been an inspiration to those watching.

“My family saw that when I went through the transplants and the chemo, the radiation and all the needles and the transfusions and the infusions, that I always came out on the other side,” she said. “I try to do it with dignity. I try to show my family that regardless of whatever your health situation is, you can rise above it and you can find joy, and we have.”

“I’ve tried to do all of the positive commitments and engagements that I could to remain alive and to be a positive person, to continue my education, and just live my life,” she added. “It’s been working.”

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