When the Teacher Becomes the Patient

A doctor greets her patient at the bedside
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Joyce DeGennaro, 36, spends her professional life teaching students about the human body as a nursing instructor for the University of Central Florida. Last summer, she had the foresight to listen to her own. In a matter of minutes, she went from teacher to patient in a whirlwind story that helped her put her health, her faith and her career in perspective.

I woke up on a Monday with the most pain I'd ever had underneath my armpit. I thought I slept wrong, you know? I'd nicked myself shaving before with an infection so I chalked it up to that. Tuesday I woke up feeling shooting pain down to my fingers. I felt my lymph nodes above my collarbones and they were swollen. We tell our students that is an ominous sign of cancer, so I used it as a teaching tool by allowing them to feel mine, because they would probably never get to do this in practice since it is rare.

I heard a male voice in my head that said You need to get checked out. I called my husband and made arrangements with the kids, I have a four-year-old and an eight-year-old. I told him I was going to the ER to get it checked out. So as I'm leaving, I think to myself, maybe I'll just go to an urgent care center?

The Choice

Then I heard that voice again, and it said you need to go to AdventHealth East Orlando. I used to be a nurse at the hospital so I rushed there. First off I'm thinking, What the heck am I going to tell these people when I walk in hey I need a CT scan because I think I've got cancer? I told them about my shooting pain down to my fingers, and I immediately was taken to the Imaging department for a CT. When it came back it showed I had masses and all the nodes on my right side were swollen. Literally the next day I had a mammogram, MRI and an ultrasound and it confirmed at had 3 breast cancer in my right breast.

I wasn't sick, I had no symptoms whatsoever and no family history of cancer. You go from nothing to this huge diagnosis.

Diagnosis and Treatment

I was diagnosed on June 23 and under the advice of Sarah George, MD, medical oncologist, I started chemotherapy about two weeks later, on July 10th.

My chemotherapy was an eight and a half hour day. Its indescribable as to what it does to your body, there are really no words. It's agony from the tip of your head to the end of your toes. I'm a nurse, I've taken care of patients at the end of their ropes, and until you go through it yourself you don't understand. The craziest thing is, I thought I was a really good nurse until I became a patient at AdventHealth East Orlando. The little things they've done for me have just made waves. Based on the care they've given me I feel like I need to go back and apologize to all my patients!

Everything moved fast and it was good for me to move fast. The doctors were saying the cancer was aggressive. If it would have taken longer I would have lost my mind. It didn't give me the chance to worry. The doctors were like this is the next step, let's do it and everyone was on it. The schedulers were amazing. They'd call me at 5:30 pm and said ok you're set tomorrow for 7:30 am.

The Road to Recovery 

I've had six cycles of chemo and finished my last one on October 22. I had surgery the week before Thanksgiving and then radiation at AdventHealth East Orlando. My family, my support staff at East Orlando, my students, my faith, they've all helped me get through this. It was definitely God talking to me that day. Sometimes you have to listen.

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