Windy May Steele is doubly grateful she'll be walking at Brigham Young University graduation this week.
In the vernacular of college students, "walking" is shorthand for receiving a diploma at commencement. While Steele will be walking, she'll also be walking - and that's no small feat for someone whose college career was interrupted by a little-known form of cancer that nearly took her foot."I think this is probably the greatest accomplishment in my entire life: graduating from college after overcoming cancer," said Steele, 22, who will be awarded a degree in statistics at commencement exercises Thursday.
"(Steele) is pretty tenacious," said BYU statistics professor Gilbert Fellingham, whom Steele credits with helping her get over the obstacles that blocked her path to graduation. "She hit some roadblocks, but she wanted that degree, and she had the determination."
Steele enrolled at BYU after graduating from high school in
1993. She took heavy course loads each semester and even took classes during the summer - until a mysterious ailment began sapping her strength during her sophomore year.
Doctors were unsure what made Steele tired all the time and why her foot caused her such great pain. All the Pismo Beach, Calif., native knew was that she was unable to concentrate on her studies, and her grades suffered. After her second year at BYU, Steele went home for the summer and didn't plan to return.
"I wasn't happy," she said. "I was really depressed. I didn't know what was wrong with me."
Finally, Steele asked a podiatrist to remove a bone spur in her foot. The doctor sent tissue to several labs for testing, and Steele was diagnosed with synovial cell sarcoma, a cancer that affects soft tissue.
Some specialists recommended a type of therapy that Steele feared may have had undesirable side effects. Another doctor considered amputating her foot. But Steele's courage and the dedication of a medical team in Denver sent her instead on a path that would include three surgeries but the preservation of her foot.
"I'm very active," Steele said. "I use my foot a lot. I have a lot of things I like to do with my foot, and I'm glad I still have it."
Although the recovery was difficult - and although she still lives with the fear that the cancer will return - Steele set several goals for herself, including returning to BYU to finish her degree.
She reapplied for admission and entered school again in the spring of 1997. By this spring, she had completed course work - finishing her degree in less than four years despite not being able to attend school during more than a year because of the illness.
"It took me a while to decide I was really going to graduate from college," Steele said. "But once I decided, there was no standing in my way."
Steele said she is grateful to Fellingham and others who supported her during her time at BYU. Her efforts and those of others already are paying off because Steele now has a job that she enjoys at a division of First Data Corp. in Omaha, Neb., as a business analyst.
She also completed one of the other goals she set for herself after recovering from cancer (buying a Honda bullet bike) and nearly completed another (earning a black belt in Tae Kwon Do). But this week, there's little more important to Steele than walking.
"It got to the point where my education was so important to me that if I had been told I had a month to live, I would have gone to the Department of Statistics and said, `OK, how do I graduate in less than a month?' "