Cancer delays mom’s dream

It was a cancer diagnosis that forced Lucinda Swartz to drop out of college, but it was her unstoppable drive that got her back to class and ready to don her cap and gown this spring.

A full-time mother of two and education major at Washington State Community College, the busy 31-year-old was diagnosed with colon cancer during a colonoscopy she had after feeling stomach pains. The roadblock could have completely stopped Swartz’s path toward graduation. Instead, her journey led her to become more driven than ever.

“Whenever I found out I had (stage two) colon cancer, it didn’t even run through my mind that I would have to slow down,” said Swartz. “I guess that’s my personality, to be independent and stick with things once I start. I assumed I could keep going. So, I was disappointed when I had to drop out, but I kept telling myself it would only be a matter of time before I could get back to learning about what I love.”

The elementary education student, who is graduating in May, has been passionate about making a positive impact on children through early learning teaching since she had her own daughters, Riley, 8, and Leah, 6.

“It’s not something I want to do because I need a job or the money, it’s something I genuinely love,” she said. “I know I can make a difference in children’s lives. After having kids, I realized how much I loved watching them learn and how easy it was for other children to connect with me even from just helping out with a play group.”

Swartz wouldn’t quit on her quest toward completing college at Washington State when she received shocking news of colon cancer on Aug. 18, 2014. Her doctor suspected she had been unknowingly suffering with the disease for more than five years.

Colon cancer begins with noncancerous polyps that often do not show symptoms; regular screening is the best option for early detection and treatment. The treatment, most commonly done through removal of cancerous polyps through surgery, depends on the location, size and extent of cancer spread as well as health of patient.

Symptoms, when they do surface, can include abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, weight loss, fatigue, weakness and shortness of breath. More specific symptoms, which arise depending on where abnormal growths are found, can include constipation, diarrhea and even blood in the stool.

The diagnosis forced Swartz to make some tough decisions, including delaying her dream of becoming a teacher.

“Before I found out I had cancer, I was taking six to seven classes at the college,” explained Swartz. “With two daughters, I’m a very dedicated mother, so I didn’t spend my time with them studying. I would get up at 3 a.m. every morning before they even woke up to do school work. Once I decide to do something important to me, I don’t give up.”

In August of 2015, after enduring two major surgeries, countless complications and months of recovery, the devoted mom and student was able to again enroll in classes and finish her academic time at the community college. She is also able to call herself cancer-free.

With stage two colon cancer, like Swartz had, surgery is required to remove sections of the colon containing cancerous growth along with nearby lymph nodes. This can completely remove and cure the cancer, unless chemotherapy is needed due to complications.

“In a modern day version of David and Goliath, the tiny-framed mom of two went toe-to-toe with cancer and came out the victor,” said Amanda Herb, vice president of enrollment and student success. The college names Swartz as their March student of the month.

Although faculty members of the college know her as a victor, she is very humble about her achievements.

“I was kind of excited, but generally I am the one giving the award…not receiving,” Swartz spoke on receiving Washington State’s March Student of the Month award. “It’s nice to be recognized. I’m very thankful and flattered.”

Following graduation, she plans to pursue her bachelors degree at West Virginia University-Parkersburg with a master’s degree as her ultimate goal. Swartz said she would simply like to work with children and be a positive role model for those that need it most.

The education student is also active in her community. She recently helped organize a science fair at New Matamoras Elementary School, which her daughter attends. Swartz is also a member of the school’s Parent Teacher Organization and plays guitar in her spare time.

Allen Shore, dean of arts and sciences at Washington State, spoke highly of Swartz, whom he worked with on coordinating the science fair.

“Lucinda worked with the principal and the PTO to organize that…if it wasn’t for her, it probably would not have happened. She is so special and also very humble,” said Shore. “Even with all the setbacks, she is always positive and upbeat. I didn’t realize how much of the cancer battle she had to face. It’s an amazing story.”

While her classes had to be stretched over two additional semesters to finish, Swartz believes that concession to be minor when compared to the battle she overcame. She will shortly be able to don her cap and gown and proudly accept her associates degree.

March is also Colon Cancer Awareness Month. Swartz said she was grateful to be able to raise awareness by being this month’s student honoree.

Colon cancer is the second leading diagnosed cancer in the United States; it develops slowly over 10 to 15 years, often with no signs or symptoms associated with the disease. There are currently more than one million survivors of colorectal cancer living to normal life-expectancy.

Colonoscopies are generally recommended for those 50 and older as a screening for colon cancer.