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The Catalyst

MHA graduate beats lymphoma

By Ashley Barker
Public Relations

One morning near the end of her second year as a health administration student at MUSC, Abby Bunkley woke up with chills and a fever.

As a full-time manager of a plastic surgery office on Daniel Island and a part-time College of Health Professions student, she didn’t have much time for doctors in her personal life. Thinking she had the flu, she popped in an office the following day for some medicine.

Abby Bunkley
Abby Bunkley

When the symptoms steadily intensified, she returned to the doctor and was diagnosed with pneumonia. 

By the next month, Bunkley described the pain she was feeling as having an elephant on her back. She had practically stopped eating and returned to the doctor exhausted. This time she was referred to Carolyn Reed, M.D., a renowned cardiothoracic surgeon and oncologist at MUSC who died a year after meeting Bunkley. After several tests and a biopsy, Reid informed the 26-year-old that she had mediastinal diffuse large B-cell non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and had an 11-centimeter-wide mass in her chest.

“I couldn’t stand up straight because it had gotten so big that it was pushing all my organs against my spine,” Bunkley said. “If I stood up straight, I couldn’t breathe with 97 percent of my lung. So I was hunched over for months.”

Ten days after being diagnosed, Bunkley began her first of six rounds of R-CHOP chemotherapy, followed by 21 rounds of radiation. For about six months, Bunkley, a College of Charleston alumnus, never spent an evening alone. Her parents and friends created a schedule and rotated bringing her dinner, sleeping over on her couch, walking her dog and keeping her entertained. Patrick O’Neill, M.D., owner of O’Neill Plastic Surgery, provided support and encouragement while she continued working. But, Bunkley became sicker, weaker and more scared over time.

“It’s OK to ask for help. It’s OK to cry. It’s OK to be mad. Just be grateful for every day that you have,” Bunkley said would be her advice to a new cancer patient. “There were some nights that I was scared to go to sleep because I didn’t know if I’d wake up. It was the darkest experience.”
Bunkley’s oncologist, Luciano Costa, M.D., Ph.D., associate professor of medicine at MUSC, said taking care of her was “challenging and joyful, but ultimately very rewarding.”

“She did not have an easy time with treatment and yet managed to keep her life on track with a very demanding job and going to school at the same time. Abby had a tremendously positive attitude all along, and I am sure this was the key for her success,” he said. “She would write down all her questions in a notebook as they came up and bring them to the appointments, something I wish all patients would do. I saw in her the sadness, the fear and the emotions that all patients face. But these feelings would be brief, and she would never allow defeat to become her mindset. She just knew how to put cancer in its place.”

Abby Bunkley and her oncologist, Dr. Luciano Costa, celebrated being cancer free last July.
Abby Bunkley and her oncologist, Dr. Luciano Costa, celebrated being cancer free last July.

Bunkley went into remission on July 3, 2012. The one thing that didn’t change in her life was the career goal she had set before the fight of her life began. Bunkley was determined to graduate from MUSC, while continuing to work at O’Neill Plastic Surgery, and earn an administrative fellowship. She accomplished all three.

There were more than 150 applicants, according to Bunkley, for the fellowship at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, N.C. When she applied, Bunkley had no hair and was new to the concept of wearing a wig.

“During the first interview, I wore a wig, never disclosed my lymphoma to anyone and never let anyone know what was going on personally. By the grace of God, they chose me,” she said. “When the VP of operations, Tim Brookshire, called to tell me that I’d been chosen, I couldn’t speak. I just kept crying. I was so excited that I couldn’t find the words. The path that I had for myself before I got sick was happening. It was definitely what I needed.”

Bunkley, who is the recipient of the 2013 Executive MHA Outstanding Student Award, will spend a year at the center to see the daily operations from a bird’s eye view and hopes to move into hospital administration.

Throughout the lymphoma process, many of Bunkley’s friends kept asking her what they could do to help. One of her best friends, Courtney Prine, an administrative specialist in the MUSC Division of Infectious Diseases, decided to plan a party to raise money for Bunkley’s medical bills.

More than 400 people showed up to Wiggin’ Out for a Cure, which was held last February at Midtown Bar and Grill. Guests, who showed up in costumes, cocktail dresses and wigs, raised more than $16,000, which paid for all of Bunkley’s medical bills.

More than $16,000 was raised during Wiggin’ Out for a Cure, held in honor of Abby Bunkley, second from the left. Guests showed up in costumes, cocktail dresses and wigs.
More than $16,000 was raised during Wiggin’ Out for a Cure, held in honor of Abby Bunkley, second from the left. Guests showed up in costumes, cocktail dresses and wigs.

“To walk into the infusion center and see this beautiful 26-year-old girl with long blond hair hooked up to all these IV machines, it was totally heart wrenching,” Prine said. “She has gone through something so unimaginable, and I’m so glad I was able to be with her through it all.”

Because of the party’s success, Bunkley and Prine also planned a second event to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and for their Team in Training goal.

“Courtney’s life-long goal was to run a marathon before she was 30, and I wanted to get back in shape after cancer because I lost all my muscle. So we signed up for a marathon,” Bunkley said.
Their second party raised more than $13,500 for the society and their trip to San Diego for the Rock & Roll Marathon on June 2.

Even though the lymphoma isn’t with Bunkley anymore, some of its signs are still lingering.

“I pay close attention to everything that’s going on around me. If a big gust of wind blows by me, I feel it,” Bunkley said. “I never thought that I wasn’t going to make it. I just didn’t know if the life that I had planned out was just a rough draft.”

May 16, 2013

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