A 23-year-old woman graduates from college after undergoing 40 cancer surgeries.

McKenzy Hupke, 23, was diagnosed with Stage 4 squamous cell carcinoma of the head and neck in March 2015.

Her doctors did not expect her to live long enough to graduate from college, but in May 2022, she walked across the stage to receive her diploma at Wagner College’s commencement.

«I had been through a lot to get to graduation,» Hupke explained, «and if it hadn’t been for the extremely urgent brain surgery I had in March, I definitely would not have made it to this May graduation.»

The Expedition of Seven Years…

Prior to the official diagnosis in 2015, her doctors thought the tumors were benign, and Hupke underwent approximately ten procedures in her nose and ears to remove the tumors they thought were benign.

Following a lung biopsy and other tests, the lesions were determined to be malignant.

Hupke began chemotherapy and a variety of other anti-cancer treatments at Memorial Sloan Kettering shortly after her diagnosis.

«It began with chemotherapy in 2015, followed by radiation therapy in 2016, ongoing chemotherapy, and sporadic operations. Then I started immunotherapy, and after that and radiation, they thought I was in remission for a while,» Hupke explained.

When Hupke was diagnosed with cancer, she was a sophomore in high school. She was still receiving treatment at the start of her college career, but it was less intense than in the past because she was thought to be in remission.

Hupke’s relapse was discovered through surgery in 2019, near the start of her junior year of college.

Hupke had her first brain surgery in the spring of 2021, after the cancer had spread. She had lost the majority of her hearing ability due to tumors in her ears.

«I’m a singer, so that was extremely upsetting,» Hupke explained, «and the biggest issue with my health was my hearing loss…

By 2021, I couldn’t listen to music the same way, couldn’t hear conversations the same way, and had to rely on an app for subtitles all the time.»

Hupke began a new type of chemotherapy after her initial brain surgery, but the tumors returned sooner than expected a few months later. She was readmitted to the hospital in August 2021, where her surgeon and other doctors advised her to begin hospice care.

«I was hesitant,» Hupke admitted.

Hupke had a goal of graduating from college, and she was going to do everything she could to make that happen. She recommenced radiation treatment, known as a Quad-Shot, because hospice care was not an option.

Hupke underwent her second brain surgery this past spring after receiving additional radiation and chemotherapy, and she recovered faster than anyone could have predicted.

She has since received a variety of treatments over the last few months.

Music and Caring: The Importance of Both

When Hupke was sixteen, she was attending a performing arts high school where she studied singing and participated in the theater department.

Hupke has used her passion for music as an outlet for her creativity since the day she was diagnosed with cancer.

«As she entered my room, she told me she had received a phone call informing her that the tumor had been confirmed to be malignant. This was acceptable to me because it answered a question we had been debating for some time.

«When my mother left my room, I grabbed my guitar and started playing and singing,» Hupke explained.

Hupke would occasionally enter the hospital’s music room and sing while playing the piano during her chemotherapy treatments.

Hupke and her mother drove from their home in New Jersey to the hospital in New York City several times per week.

They listened to and sang along to music by Kelly Clarkson and Alanis Morissette, among others, during these long car rides.

Hupke is also involved with The Frances Foundation, an organization dedicated to assisting children fighting cancer.

Hupke has performed at Galas and other events hosted by The Frances Foundation since the first year of her diagnosis, strengthening her bonds with the foundation’s members.

The Frances Foundation named Hupke the 2021 Warrior of the Year when she was at her lowest point, having lost the majority of her hearing and being unable to communicate herself through music.

«Being able to attend this event and be named Warrior of the Year meant so much to me, and to be at an event like this, I felt like I wasn’t giving as much as I usually could, but I felt incredibly honored,» Hupke said.

The Battle Continues

At the time of her graduation, Hupke was doing so well that she was allowed to go without doctor’s appointments or treatments for a couple of weeks. Instead, she had the opportunity to spend time with family and friends and visit New York City.

Hupke continues to take each day as it comes, and she is still confused about many aspects of her health, but she is excited to see where her adventure will lead her next.

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