BY GREG KATSKI, DIRECTOR OF MARKETING FOR CCPS
Loretta Mask graduated from Drury University’s St. Robert campus in May. It’s a major achievement for most, but when Mask walked at commencement and received her bachelor’s degree in general studies, the moment was even more monumental. After transferring from two previous universities, attending college on and off for more than 20 years and overcoming a health scare that debilitated her for two semesters while at Drury, Mask finally realized her dream of graduating from college. Actually, it’s only part of the dream. Mask plans to continue her studies in one of Drury’s Master in Education programs and, one day soon, teach high school history.
Mask was initially apprehensive about going back to school, but Drury’s advisors and instructors in St. Robert allayed any fears she had. “I went and spoke to Ms. Donna and felt right at home,” Mask says in regard to Donna King, coordinator of the business office in St. Robert.
That hominess extended from the business office to the classroom, where Mask says her instructors gave her the personal attention she desired.
“Any time you start something new, you’re nervous,” Mask says. “But the professors were amazing. They calmed my fears. They worked with me when I wasn’t sure. That’s one thing I like about being here; all of the professors are very personal. If you see them on the street, you can say, ‘Hi.’ If you have a question about your class, they’re going to answer you no matter what — by email, phone, any way they can.”
Mask began her studies at Drury in fall 2014. She excelled in the classroom her first three semesters, making the dean’s list and carrying a 4.0 GPA into the spring 2016 semester. Then, on May 3, 2016, everything changed. Mask received a call from her doctor. On a routine checkup, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Total shock,” Mask says now recalling the phone call. “Whenever you hear the word ‘cancer,’ you think, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die.’ And then you think, ‘I can’t. I’ve got kids. I’ve got a family.’”
The diagnosis also came a week before finals. No matter – Mask would not be deterred.
“I just finished that semester and took my finals. It took my mind off of things,” she says. Mask underwent surgery in June 2016 and started on the path to recovery. Unfortunately, she later received more bad news – the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, meaning she would have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.
Still, Mask would not be defined by this debilitating disease. She would not let it consume her life. “That was my mindset. Cancer is not beating me. Cancer is not going to win,” Mask says. “I watched my brother die of brain cancer. I watched my brother-in-law die of brain cancer and lung cancer. It was not going to take me down. School became my out. I could focus on that. I could study. And cancer was nowhere in the classroom.”
Mask began chemotherapy in fall 2016, but she still made it to class almost every night. And when she couldn’t attend class, her instructors went out of their way to make sure she stayed up on her assignments. “There were times when the chemo had made me so sick that I wasn’t going to be able to make it to class,” Mask says. “I would call the professors and talk to them, and they would tell me what they were talking about in that class and give me notes or email me the assignment so I could get it done for the next class. Every professor I’ve had has been really amazing.”
Just before her finals that semester, Mask started radiation treatment. She endured 33 rounds of radiation, riding with her husband from St. Robert to Rolla five mornings a week for six weeks for treatment, coming back home to change and grab her books, and going to class in the evenings. “It burned me so badly I had third degree burns, and the burn was 21 inches long and 9 inches tall,” she says. “It was very painful putting clothes on.”
There were days when the pain was so bad and Mask was so worn out from her treatments, that she couldn’t carry her books to class. Thankfully, her classmates were always there to lend a hand. “They would carry my books and pack my stuff up for me so I didn’t have to move so much,” Mask says. Despite all the setbacks and stress of radiation treatment, Mask completed the spring 2017 semester with a 3.6 GPA.
In August 2017, she finally received some good news. Mask’s doctor informed her she was cancer free. Her last cancer treatment intravenously would be August 31, 2017, only days after the fall semester started. She would have the chance to complete her last year of college without cancer. “By going to school and doing my best, cancer didn’t beat me. I won,” Mask says.
Mask did not graduate alone; her husband also graduated with a bachelor’s degree from Drury, and one of her daughters received her associate’s degree from the university as well. “I was really excited about that. It was a family event,” she says. “I would recommend Drury to anyone. This school’s been a blessing to me. That’s how I look at it.”
Mask hopes her story of perseverance serves as a lesson to others, including her youngest daughter. “My 10-year-old was eight when I was diagnosed,” Mask says. “She knew what cancer was. She saw her uncles pass from it. She saw it as a death sentence. And then she sees her mommy go to school and do my best and not let cancer beat me — and I hope it’s a lesson that other people can use — never give up, no matter what.”