Cancer survivor 1st in family to earn college degree


Jessica Dorney was only 10 years old when she was diagnosed with leukemia in May 2000. Now, at 22, Dorney has done what she had once thought would be impossible, graduated from college.

Dorney graduated this May from St. Joseph’s College in Maine with a degree in Exercise Science.

“It was something that I didn’t think I would be able to do,” said Dorney. “I was the first one in my immediate family and in all of my dad’s extended family to go to college. Whether I would go to college at all had always been kind of up in the air.”

Jim Dorney, Jessica’s dad, said her graduation was a surreal moment for him as well. “It’s a wonderful thing considering where she was 12 years ago,” said Jim. “ When you add in how she was and whether she was even going to be here, it makes it matter so much more. It always seems extra for Jess because of everything she went through.”

Jessica’s graduation isn’t only important to her immediate family but to the whole community. Jessica and her family have always had a large impact in the area.

“They have this incredible feel for being involved in the community. Jim, Stacey and the kids, it’s really nice,” said Mayor Scott Avedisian.

Avedisian said it wasn’t long after he became mayor that he was asked to be an ambassador for the Tomorrow Fund. Avedisian has been inspired by Jessica’s ability to overcome obstacles and thrive.

“One of my most touching moments as mayor was going to her bridging ceremony [where Girl Scout Cadets cross over to Gold Award winners] and saying, ‘Here’s a kid who survived this horrible, horrible time with grace and dignity, and taught us adults real life lessons,’” said Avedisian. “It’s wonderful to be celebrating her graduation this year.”

Jessica is thankful to have had the support of her community from the day she was diagnosed until now.

“When I was diagnosed, people would make dinners for my family so that my parents wouldn’t have to worry about cooking and the people from our church would pray for me, and my entire family, all the time,” said Jessica. “Even now, everyone is really excited to hear that I graduated and still continue to be a great support system.”

In her years at St. Joseph’s College, Jessica found yet another support system, her friends. During her sophomore year, a close friend contacted Jessica after seeing a picture her aunt had uploaded to her Facebook page. Jessica’s friend, Deena, had battled cervical cancer and suggested they compare experiences.

This was when Jessica first started opening up with others about her experience with cancer. After speaking with Deena, Jessica began to feel more comfortable discussing her own personal struggles.

“Suddenly, I didn’t feel so alone anymore because someone I had been so close to, that I never would have expected, had went through a similar experience,” said Jessica. “I felt like I finally had someone I could talk to who would understand.”

Jessica hopes that talking about her story will help others to feel less alone.

“I wanted to be more open because I thought my experiences might help other people,” said Jessica.

Although Jessica has been out of treatment since 2003, she still struggles with its side effects.

“I’m tired more than a lot of people and have to make adjustments due to food intolerances,” she said. “For example, I had to cut out all meat from my diet because it was making me sick.”

None of this, however, has stopped her from doing anything she’s wanted to do, including swimming. She swam with the St. Joseph’s girls’ swimming team for three years until a rotator cuff injury made it impossible for her to continue.

Even when she was in treatment, Jessica was always swimming. She swam with the YMCA for six years and all throughout her time at Prout High School.

“Even when I was going through treatment, I always had swimming and the pool to come back to,” said Jessica. “It’s not a contact sport, so no matter how low my blood count got, I could still go swimming. It was my way of having a little bit of something normal.”

Jessica hopes to turn her love of swimming into a career.

“It would be really cool to coach a college team and to coach Olympians would be amazing,” said Jessica.

Jessica currently works full-time at the McDermott Pool but is applying to work at the YMCA, where she hopes to teach swimming classes.

While Jessica already has a long line of achievements, she’s not planning on stopping anytime soon.

“Both my parents always say that I don’t realize how much I’ve accomplished,” said Jessica. “But I think yeah, I beat cancer and I graduated from high school and college, but now I’m ready to move onto the next thing. I want to keep looking forward.”


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