'In the face of insurmountable challenges': Woman completes PhD despite terminal cancer diagnosis

Research supervisor calls Precilla Veigas a "regular person performing extraordinary actions in the face of insurmountable challenges" during a special convocation ceremony at the University of Toronto on Tuesday.

University of Toronto honours Precilla Veigas a month earlier than regularly scheduled convocation

Precilla Veigas shows off her PhD with her daughter, Jadyn, far right, by her side. (Jennifer Barr/CBC)

A Toronto woman who refused to let a terminal cancer diagnosis prevent her from realizing her childhood dream was awarded her PhD in a special convocation ceremony at the University of Toronto on Tuesday.

Precilla Veigas earned her doctorate from the Institute of Medical Science for her work on diagnosing clotting defects in people who have suffered severe injuries, research that her doctoral supervisors said will change the way hospitals treat trauma patients. 

As her husband, Joseph, and daughter, Jadyn, looked on, Veigas received not only her degree but accolades from her research supervisors at a private convocation ceremony organized for Veigas, who doctors fear may not make it to the official event next month.

Dr. Sandro Rizoli, one of Veigas's supervisors, hailed her as a "regular person performing extraordinary actions in the face of insurmountable challenges."

"She's done magnificent work," he said.

Veigas, along with her daughter, Jadyn, and husband, Joseph, are all smiles after she was awarded her PhD. She earned her degree despite receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis back in 2015. (CBC)

Veigas was working on her PhD in the summer of 2015 when pain in her shoulder got so bad she was unable to drive. She also found that she would get tired as she walked around campus. Then 43, Veigas wondered if her fatigue was just part of getting older.

Her family doctor prescribed shoulder exercises and referred her to a cardiologist, who found nothing wrong with her heart. But her symptoms persisted, and she was referred to an endocrinologist for blood work, which showed elevated liver enzymes.

Meanwhile, her doctor found a shadow on a shoulder ultrasound.

A CT scan suggested something was amiss, and an MRI and biopsy confirmed the worst: Stage 4 cancer.

She was told the disease had originated in her bile duct and spread to her ovaries and liver.

Her oncologist at Sunnybrook Hospital in Toronto determined it was too late to operate on her liver. Instead, she'd be given chemotherapy to buy her some time.

In the fall, he told her she had six months to live, a year if the chemo helped.

"I was so upset and I went alone to see the doctor and had no one around me," Veigas told CBC News. "I didn't show it, but I was really sad. At that time I thought of my dad, someone reading my eulogy and my daughter coming from university or school and there's no one to call, 'Mom I'm home.'"

'I had a childhood dream'

Veigas's father died when she was 11 years old, leaving her mother to raise seven children on her own in modest circumstances in India. Her mother told her children the key to success in life was education.

"She always used to say, 'If you study, it will take you places and it is the asset that no one can snatch from you.'"

Despite her diagnosis, she was determined to finish her research and defend her dissertation.

"I had a childhood dream of doing a PhD, and this cancer should not prevent me from what I want to do," she said. "I didn't want to give up because physically I was normal even though the doctors said, 'Your condition is not good.'"

Veigas said she wasn't going to let a cancer diagnosis get in the way of achieving her childhood dream. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

She didn't want someone else to write her dissertation or finish her work so she could be awarded a degree posthumously. 

"My daughter made the point that I'm going to get my degree, because she's the purpose of my life," Veigas said. "We both encourage each other, and I want to set an example for her so that she will achieve something down the line, maybe find the cure for cancer, you never know."

So Veigas pushed on with her work. A keen student, she had already completed the pre-requisite course work and had written an outline of her dissertation. Her advisers pledged their support as she continued her research.

"She was so sure that's what she wanted, that she wanted to leave a legacy for her daughter," Rizoli said. "I was glad that she did not give up."

Daughter 'extremely proud'

For her part, 15-year-old Jadyn said she's "really excited" for her mother and "extremely proud."

"I look up to her as a role model now because after seeing what she's done, it should be a breeze for me."

Like her mother, Jadyn has an affinity for sciences and hopes to go into pharmacology studies.

Jadyn, 15, says she's proud of her mother for persevering through her illness. (Mehrdad Nazarahari/CBC)

Veigas recently learned her cancer actually originated in her appendix. The discovery opened up new treatments options that have had some positive effect, but her prognosis remains bleak.

She was told in December she had only six months to live.

She stopped treatment for two weeks to defend her dissertation in March, and says she still feels strong.

'They are treating me like a princess'

She says she was surprised the university wanted to hold a special convocation for her to ensure she would receive her degree.

"They are treating me like a princess and celebrity, whatever you call it," she said. "I'm so overwhelmed with the care they have taken ever since I got my diagnosis."

But school officials wouldn't have it any other way.

"We wanted to make sure she had that moment at a time when she still feels physically well enough to participate in it," said Luc De Nil, vice-dean of the school of graduate studies. "We wanted to do it for her family and for her daughter and husband. I think it's extremely important for them, as well."

Regardless of how much time she has left, he said, "her accomplishments will continue to live on in the research and the outcome of her research in the improvements in clinical practice in hospitals in dealing with patients who have traumatic experiences."

Veigas said the only real regret she has is how stressed out she got about things like her two-hour commute. She believes stress contributed to her disease.

"Where I see the streets now, where I used to rush and run, I feel sad," she said. "Did I really need to do that? I could have slowed down. It's out of my control. Some things are unexpected."

With files from Ioanna Roumeliotis and Jennifer Barr