By Alexis Clark
NASHVILLE, TN (TSU News Service) — For Zaria Hunter, this semester marks her triumphant return to Tennessee State University as she continues the battle of her life against a rare form of cancer.
In 2021, Hunter started her spring semester of sophomore year off strong, studying agriculture sciences with a pre-veterinary medicine concentration.
But Hunter’s school year took a turn when she began having constant, severe headaches, something she expected to pass overtime with some medication. What Hunter didn’t expect was to spend her 20th birthday in St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis fighting the rare cancer that was ravishing her body and had already reached stage 4.
In April 2021, Hunter’s family discovered that the cancerous cells had spread throughout her body.
“It was in my liver, brain, lungs, spine and hip bone,” Hunter shared.
During her five-month stay at St. Jude, Hunter experienced going into a coma several times, one of which lasted four days.
“That’s when things were getting rough,” she added. Hunter, an Atlanta native, was frail and couldn’t walk. Standing 5-foot-4 inches tall at 85 pounds, she underwent seven rounds of intravenous chemotherapy and surgery to receive an implanted port in her chest.
While Hunter was in Memphis for treatment, her long-time friend from high school who also attends TSU, Chayne Alexander, prayed for her recovery and return to the university.
“Her family had reached out to her friends and once I found out, I instantly started crying,” Alexander said. “Because I’ve experienced this feeling before when I lost my granddad, so I was hurt to the core.”
Alexander said their friends supported and prayed for Hunter every day, keeping their faith.
And so did Dr. De’Etra Young, the Associate Dean for Academics in the college of agriculture.
“When Zaria was hospitalized, we communicated frequently,” Dr. Young said, noting that Hunter was concerned about her schoolwork, staying hopeful in her return to TSU. “Her desire to return to school while fighting cancer, is determination that I have never seen before,” Young said.
“She inspires me. Her resilience speaks to the caliber of what type of student she is. To know that she is still fighting and staying uplifted, I look forward to the day she graduates,” Young said.
“Once a tiger, always a tiger.”
Fellow students and professors say despite how ill Hunter became, she always kept a smile on her face throughout her journey. After her five months stay at the hospital, Hunter was released and began her daily dosage of oral chemotherapy.
“I never lost who I was when I was in the hospital,” Hunter said. “I kept high spirits and stayed positive.”
This semester, Hunter is back in Nashville battling a small percentage of cancer that is only in her lungs now.
Hunter is visiting St. Jude once a month for checkups while she is pursuing her dream at TSU to become a veterinarian.
“It feels great to be back,” she said. “My determination to be better, and to do better kept me going … I was praying for these better days,” she smiled.
She said that although balancing school and her social life while fighting cancer will get tricky, she knows that she is up for the challenge. “God let me know that it was going to get rough in the beginning but … I never gave up on myself,” she said.
Hunter said she is thankful for her support system at TSU and looks forward to being cancer free, and most importantly, getting her degree with the ultimate goal of becoming a veterinarian.