April 07, 2023
Taylor Swift sang of the "invisible string" tying her to someone special in a song on her eighth album, "folklore." Last month, Villanova University alumna Raquel Doke found out that she had many of these unseen connections with good-hearted people across the country after she posted a TikTok about her battle with stage 4 adrenal cancer.
In the video, Doke, a former cheerleader who was present when the Wildcats won the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship in 2016, detailed her struggles with cancer and expressed her desire to acquire nearly-impossible-to-get tickets to see Taylor Swift during her Eras Tour. The Villanova community quickly mobilized to help her and, within days, fellow alum Phil Holt and his family's South Jersey based company, Holt Logistics, offered the 28-year-old two tickets.
"I couldn't believe it," Doke said. "I was like crying when I found out. It was so, so nice."
In the TikTok video, which has been viewed more than 10,000 times, Doke described her cancer journey, which began about a year ago when she began experiencing abdominal pain and swelling, including a swollen face.
Doctors found a large adrenal tumor. It was surgically removed, along with a kidney, several lymph nodes, part of her liver and part of her diaphragm. The cancer spread to Doke's liver, and her care was transferred to a hospital in Houston, Texas, where she underwent chemotherapy.
It was those college friends who encouraged Doke to share her story to social media in the first place, when procuring tickets on their own became a nightmare, thanks in no small part to Ticketmaster's now-infamous mishandling of Swift's ticket sales.
"None of us were able to get tickets to the Houston show," Doke said. "So I was like, 'well, that's a bummer.' And I kept looking online to try to see if tickets were available, and all I was really seeing were tickets at the back of the stage, and even those were really expensive. Any kind of good seats were crazy amounts of money. So I was just like, 'I don't think I can like swing this, but I'd really love to go.'"
Doke wasn't confident in her TikTok skills, but a friend who works in TV production edited the video for her. The video quickly gained thousands of views. She then posted it to her Instagram story, where alumni running the Novanationer fan account saw it and asked if they could repost it to share with their 39,000 followers. Doke agreed and, from there, it took off.
"Oh my goodness, the amount of support and just love that I got was so amazing and so overwhelming; I was just in tears," Doke said. "So, so many people were just rallying around, trying to get me tickets to the Taylor Swift concert. And it was just so touching and heartwarming to see so much kindness and be reminded that there are so many good people in this world."
Holt, who comes from a family of Wildcats, reached out to Doke, letting her know that his Gloucester City-based freight transportation company would purchase tickets for her to see Swift on April 23, the final Houston concert.
As a Manhattan Beach, California native, Doke traveled far to attend college at Villanova, graduating in 2016.
"I knew I wanted to go to a school that had a lot of school spirit," Doke said. "And I knew I wanted to be on the East Coast. So Villanova was kind of a perfect fit for me."
She immersed herself in the Villanova community as a cheerleader, orientation counselor and sorority member.
One of her favorite memories as a Wildcat was traveling to the NCAA tournament with the men's basketball team as a cheerleader in 2016. Villanova beat University of North Carolina, 77-74, in an instant classic that ironically took place at NRG Stadium in Houston, and Doke was right there to witness it.
"I was sitting under the basket, like literally on the court when they won in 2016," Doke said. "One of the most amazing experiences of my life."
To fulfill a lifelong dream of becoming a veterinarian, Doke attended veterinary school at the University of Illinois, graduating in 2020 amid the COVID-19 pandemic. She then did an internship at a specialty hospital in Los Angeles before embarking on a residency in oncology in Iowa. That's when she was diagnosed with cancer.
"Ironically enough, while I got diagnosed with cancer, I was actually learning and being trained in treating dogs and cats with cancer," Doke said. "You get to really develop strong relationships with the owners of the pets, and kind of help them during a really difficult time in their life when they're struggling with grief and the challenges of treating an animal with cancer. So, that's sort of why I chose that career path because I just felt like you just form a really special bond with the animals and their owners."
Along with support from her family, boyfriend and Swift's music, Doke said she finds comfort in her special bond with her cat, named Penelope, which she adopted during veterinary school. The furry friend has traveled across the country as Doke's "support system" ever since. Being a cat lover is just one of many reasons Doke is a fan of Swift, who also is a cat lover.
"I've been a fan (of Swift) probably since middle school or high school," Doke said. "So I've been a fan for a pretty long time. And I just think she truly is the artist of our generation. She consistently puts out amazing music and her lyricism is unmatched."
Doke cited Swift's 2020 "folklore" album as reigniting her love for the singer, although she is also a self-proclaimed "reputation girly," referring to Swift's 2017 album "reputation." Some of the songs she is most excited to hear live are "Don't Blame Me," "illicit affairs" and "Cruel Summer."
This will be the longtime fan's first time seeing Swift live. Doke is bringing her boyfriend, but first she had to give him some training in Swiftie etiquette, joking that she'd give him a written quiz on Swift's many intricate lyrics. While Doke will be wearing pink to emulate Swift's 2019 "Lover" album, she got her boyfriend a shirt that reads "Karma" to cleverly represent Swift's lyric, "Karma is my boyfriend."
Along with securing tickets to see one of her favorite artists live and showing the passion of the Villanova community, Doke said the aftermath of her TikTok helped her to forge connections amid an isolating disease.
The specific type of cancer Doke faces, Adrenocortical carcinoma, or ACC, is so rare that Doke had never met someone with it before, which she said has been "really isolating."
Through her TikTok, Doke was able to connect with two other girls that have ACC. One of the girls is a board member on the Drew O'Donoghue Fund, which was launched in memory of a Villanova student who died from ACC.
"So that's another thing that has been so special to me about sharing my story; because it was a bit daunting," Doke said. "I had never gone on social media without my hair before and I had never made a TikTok before and I hadn't really been super open with everything that I had gone through and all of my challenges and everything like that. So it was a little bit scary. But getting my story out there actually ended up helping me get tickets and ended up helping me make connections with people who have very similar experiences to me."
A medical student in Houston also reached out to Doke to say she was moved by her story and would love to meet her. The pair got dinner together, bonded over Taylor Swift, and hung out a second time to craft friendship bracelets with Swift-themed sayings to wear at the concert.
In August, Doke had a major surgery followed by four cycles of chemotherapy. She recently found out she is in partial remission, which she said is "pretty good news."
Based on this latest update, Doke was switched from IV chemotherapy to IV immunotherapy plus oral chemotherapy, a treatment that so far has been easier on her body. She has a remaining lesion in her liver, so at the end of April doctors are going to perform an ablation procedure in which they insert a needle and use heat to kill the tumor.
While this will be another step toward the full remission Doke hopes to enter, she made sure it was scheduled after another important event.
"I made sure that they did it for the week after Taylor Swift, so that nothing interfered with the concert," Doke said.
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