She defied death to earn her doctoral degree
By Mike Kilen
GCU News Bureau
Four years ago, Dr. Melissa Hathaway was in the sixth week of a fight for life against colon cancer and was waiting at the clinic for her husband, Scott. He had decided to have his colon checked, too.
When the doctor emerged, she looked at his stricken face and began to cry.
“I don’t know how to tell you this … “ the doctor began, but she already knew.
It was as if everyone was talking under water. Sound was muffled, sight was blurred, her mind raced:
You’ve got to be kidding me. This can’t be real.
Together, the Massachusetts couple traveled two hours up, two hours back, to Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston each week for rounds of chemotherapy, side by side, holding hands.
During the exhausting fight, she studied 20 minutes here, a half-hour there, plugging away at her dream of a doctoral degree from Grand Canyon University and her dissertation: “How Cancer Patients Describe Their Experiences of Grief Using Social Networking Sites.”
There would be grief of her own to come, so great that it tested her will and faith. Yet in the spring of 2020, amid a worldwide virus panic, she awaited her cap and gown for a trip to Phoenix. She had done it. Thirty years after taking her first community college classes, the first of her family to ever do so, she had earned a Ph.D. at age 52.
“He wanted so much to see the day when I would be called Dr. Hathaway,” she said.
She won’t wear the cap and gown today, of course. She is safely at home in Attleboro, Mass., like others in shelter, waiting out the pandemic with no Commencement to celebrate. There, Hathaway often thinks of Scott and their journey together.
She came from a rough upbringing, a family with addictions and issues that went to Catholic Mass every week figuring it covered the rest of the week “as a free get-out-of-hell ticket,” she said.
Hathaway tried college for a while but raised three children in a troubled marriage that ended. Now she was a single mother on welfare who weighed 320 pounds and had a learning disability — Hathaway joked that she was a bad American stereotype.
She never stopped looking for a way, and her praying took the form of diaries she had written since age 14 – one at a time from her armchair into a stack of 90 now – where she asked God if she would ever find love.
In 1998, a friend told her to go online. Back then, it meant going on America Online. She clicked with one man and traded messages with him for three months.
“I was so afraid to meet him because I thought he would reject me because of my weight,” she said. “When he told me he had lost his eyesight I thought it was a bonus. He couldn’t see me — this is good. Then when we met and he hugged me, he said, ‘You know I can feel.’ “
Sense of humor? Check. Yet in the beginning she thought of him as a nerd. He was too good, she said, a man from a nice, loving family who was gentle and kind.
“I had this Boston accent. I was streetwise and had this rough way about me,” she said. “He never swore, and I sounded like a truck driver.”
Against all odds, the relationship took off quickly.
“For him, love wasn’t about appearance. It was, ‘Do we have a connection?’” she said.
They helped each other. She led him at night when his visual impairment was the worst. He showed that, although love was not perfect, it was about commitment and grace and that what the Bible said was true: It was patient and kind.
They married on Oct. 3, 1998, “and our wedding day was like ‘The Osbournes’ meet ‘The Brady Bunch,’” she said.
Though Scott assumed because of prior medical tests that he could not produce a child, the couple did so in 18 months.
“We named him Christian because we knew he was a gift from God,” she said.
The Hathaways thrived. She lost weight and got healthy. They led Bible studies and raised children while Melissa returned to finish a couple of classes for an associate degree – then kept going until she had her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Liberty University, often while working as a counselor.
By 2015, she was ready to tackle her next dream at GCU – a doctorate in Philosophy with an Emphasis on Integrating Technology, Learning, and Psychology.
“I came a long way from being a sinner who didn’t know the Lord to becoming a Christian, to meeting a man and having a child,” she said. “It’s like God was saying, ‘You did this right, let’s keep going from here to a positive future.’”
Scott Hathaway teased her that it’s lucky she changed her name to one that sounded rich; her name before marriage wouldn’t sound too good – Dr. Bimbo.
“I remember praying to God to give me more time with him because he was such an awesome man,” Melissa Hathaway said.
Yet, as her cancer cleared from chemotherapy and surgery, his grew in his liver and throughout his system.
“He was being ravaged. I was trying to help him while I was so sick,” she said. “Both of us were so sick all the time.”
He died on Sept. 4, 2018.
“It is still very painful. I look at the pictures of him. I love him,” she said. “I call him my forever man because I’m never going to get married again. I’m still married — he’s just in heaven.”
She never gave up on her dream, though.
Hathaway worked with GCU to find ways to pay for courses while medical bills mounted. “They helped me through this,” she said. “I will never forget that.”
Said Roselyn Polk, her dissertation committee chair: “She never quit and her faith never faltered. She was upbeat and grateful even when frustrated and scared.”
At last, she finished her work.
“When Dr. Hathaway’s dissertation came to my desk to review in December, I was delighted,” said Dr. Michael Berger, Dean of the College of Doctoral Studies. “I know it has been a very long and difficult road for her. Her dissertation, ‘How Cancer Patients Describe Their Experiences of Grief Using Social Networking Sites,’ clearly shows her passion and deep connection to the subject matter. To overcome all the challenges she has and be the first person in her family to earn a doctorate is just amazing.”
In fact, she was one of only two in her immediate family to get a high school diploma.
That inspired her “miracle baby,” today a young man of 19, to dreams of his own.
“Through everything she has been through she has never given up. She always had dreams and never let them die,” Christian Hathaway said. “For me, to see her go through cancer and the passing of my father and still persevere, gave me more reason and inspiration to go on to achieve my dreams.”
He wants to make a career of making music for God and is sure his dad would be proud of that. Hathaway hopes to teach and provide counseling to those who can’t afford it.
“When I passed my last class, I cried my heart out when I got it in the mail,” she said. “I could feel my husband’s presence. ‘You did it honey, you’re Dr. Hathaway! Thank goodness it’s not Dr. Bimbo.’”
Melissa Hathaway let fly a hardy, deep laugh.
Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.