Cancer Survivor to Division I Women’s Basketball: Amanda Zeno ’24 Inspires Others with her Unyielding Spirit and Determination
October 30, 2023 - It’s an amazing story of perseverance, resilience, strength, and purpose. Student-athlete Amanda Zeno ’24 overcame the challenges of a rare cancer diagnosis, earned a spot her junior year at Marist as a walk-on onto the Division I Women's Basketball team, and is now preparing to become a physician's assistant.
Amanda’s journey shows what an unyielding spirit and determination can do. Beyond her grit and toughness is a big heart and a strong mind. Currently interning as a patient care technician at Northern Dutchess Hospital, Amanda’s life-changing experience has fueled her passion to become a physician assistant, specializing in pediatric cancer.
“I want to work as a pediatric oncology PA not to just tell kids they can get better, but to show them that it’s possible since I’ve been in their shoes,” Amanda said. “My family, friends, medical team, and community have been incredible through everything so I plan to offer that same level of support and encouragement to kids.”
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An accomplished player and valedictorian at Fallsburg High School, about 50 miles from Marist, Amanda was racking up athletic accolades as a 1,000-point scorer. However, in 2019, she started noticing unusual symptoms.
“After a travel AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] game my face was completely broken out, my lymph nodes were swollen, I could barely breathe, and it was scary how tired I was,” she said. “I kept trying to play in the tournament but I had to finally tell my coach that I was going to pass out. I wanted to show recruiters that I could play, but I physically couldn’t.”
Amanda cut her tournament short and went straight to the hospital where she received the diagnosis: acute myeloid leukemia (AML), a rare cancer that starts in the blood-forming cells of the bone marrow.
On average, only 29.5% of people survive five years after diagnosis.
“When I was in remission after chemotherapy, I found out I needed a bone marrow transplant, which I received from my dad,” said Amanda. “Due to complications after the transplant, I had to spend about a year in the hospital, celebrating my graduation in the hospital lobby.”
During her recovery, a nurse encouraged her to research Marist, which Amanda chose because of the College’s proximity to home, its science program, and its Division I women’s basketball team.
While her playing career continued to wait, Amanda excelled in her classes at Marist, taking on challenging science coursework as a biomedical science major with a minor in psychology. Despite the ups and downs of her ongoing health journey post-chemotherapy, Amanda decided to try out for the basketball team in her junior year, and succeeded.
Amanda practicing in the McCann Arena. Photo by Nelson Echeverria/Marist College.
“When deciding to try out for the team I thought God forbid I get sick again, I will regret not taking this opportunity,” Amanda said. “I missed playing so much while I was in the hospital since it’s been a dream of mine to play at the college level since I was in the third grade. It felt amazing when I made the team; it was a dream come true.”
Amanda discussed how the Marist community serves as an extension of her support system.
“I love the family atmosphere of my team and I’m so glad I got the chance to learn from (former) Coach Brian Giorgis and now from Head Coach Erin Doughty,” said Amanda. “If you’re going through a challenge, just know that your support system has your back and that you’re never really alone.”
While Amanda has been sidelined due to several long-term health effects from chemotherapy and other cancer treatments — among them was needing shoulder surgery for avascular necrosis — she serves as an active and important player on the team.
Coach Erin Doughty (center) and Coaching Staff. Image Design by Steven DeVico/Marist College. Photo courtesy of Marist College Athletics.
Amanda says she wouldn’t have survived without her team at Maria Fareri Children’s Hospital and the Children’s Cancer Fund, which is the organization that funded the research, trials, and treatment she took part in. She also says she hopes telling her story helps others going through similar situations.
“I don’t need the limelight or the attention when people hear my story,” she said. “I just want to bring awareness to pediatric cancer — an important and underfunded issue. I also want to tell people to take opportunities when you get them, live every day like it’s your last, and don’t take life for granted.”
Get tickets to the Marist vs. Army season opener on Nov. 9, support Amanda and her teammates, and pay tribute to our veterans.