Fighting for her life

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For Sandy Devitt-Mascari, going to school was a way to live out her dreams and a reason to get out of bed while she was going through intense chemotherapy treatment.

“I had come to the realization that I had to decide whether or not I was going to let cancer define who I was, or if I was going to let my dreams define who I was,” Devitt-Mascari said.

Devitt-Mascari, a social work major and nontraditional student, decided to return to school in the summer of 2010 after leaving her job in the world of corporate business. Just three weeks before the end of the fall semester, she found out she had stage three, grade three breast cancer.

Devitt-Mascari said her initial reaction was disbelief.

“All I knew was it felt like I was suddenly spiraling down some deep dark hole, and I didn’t know where I was going,” Devitt-Mascari said.

Devitt-Mascari said stage three is an aggressive form of cancer and grade three means it was a very large tumor.

Devitt-Mascari found out about her diagnosis a few days before Thanksgiving. She said she got the call on a Tuesday morning and had tests done the next two days before driving to her son’s house to celebrate the holiday. By the following Friday, she was already having her first chemotherapy appointment.

The next decision Devitt-Mascari faced was if she could finish up the semester. She was unsure what to do, and she assumed she would have to flunk out. Devitt-Mascari said she had no idea she would receive so much support to help finish the semester.

“Everyone at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater was incredible,” Devitt-Mascari said. “Either they graded me out where I was or they allowed me to finish up what I had to from the chemo lab.”

Devitt-Mascari said from there she had to decide if she would continue into the next semester.

“One of my professors, Dr. James Winship, said, ‘If you let this define who you are, if you give up on the dream that you’ve started, you’ll get up every morning and that’s all you’ll have.’”

Knowing she would have support from her professors and family, Devitt-Mascari decided she could not give up on school. She was able to schedule her classes around her chemo appointments and moved toward fulfilling her dream of becoming a social worker. During the next year and a half, Devitt-Mascari battled for her education and her life.

During the following semester, she continued her chemotherapy treatments while taking 12 credits. In between chemo sessions, she had to wear two face masks and two sets of latex gloves while she was on campus. Her white blood cell count was so low that she was not allowed to touch anybody or breathe in the air directly because the germs were so dangerous to her health.

That same semester, over her spring break, Devitt-Mascari had a double mastectomy. She recovered as much as she could during the week off from school and returned to classes as soon as break was finished.

That summer, Devitt-Mascari took 12 credits while going through radiation five days a week. The following year,  she took 18 to 19 credits, continued to go through treatment and worked for the social work department as a research assistant.

Devitt-Mascari recently finished her internship at Mercy Health System, graduated in August and will walk the stage in December.

“I am very, very proud to say that I am a graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater,” Devitt-Mascari said. “I can’t say enough about what they did to help me fulfill a dream.”

Through it all, Devitt-Mascari said she never missed a class and will graduate with a 4.0 grade point average. Though there were days she said she wanted to crawl up on the couch, having homework to do encouraged her to get up and keep going forward, she said.

Devitt-Mascari said she gives a lot of credit to the professors and students who helped support her. “They were right there with me, crying with me, holding my hand and walking with me.”

Professor Alison Townsend was one of Devitt-Mascari’s professors and main supporters through her journey. She said Devitt-Mascari touched her in a positive way through her battle.

“She [Devitt-Mascari] really inspired me, and I think all of us who encountered her, to live our lives as fully as possible and to be the best possible person who we can,”  Townsend said.

Devitt-Mascari just passed the second half of the National Association of Social Work exam, and she is officially a certified social worker for the state of Wisconsin. She hopes to work at Mercy Health System as a breast cancer navigator.

Devitt-Mascari has been cancer free for three months.

Through her difficult journey, Devitt-Mascari said having cancer has enabled her to meet amazing people, gain life-long friends and learn valuable life lessons.

“I would never wish breast cancer on anybody that I love or care for, but in the same way, I would say that breast cancer is probably one of the greatest gifts I have ever been given,” Devitt-Mascari said.

Devitt-Mascari being honored at a girls soccer game.