Trials, Treatment and Triumph

Listen to the audio version of this article

Cancer couldn’t stop a determined mom from achieving her dream


On the Florida coast thousands of miles from Denver, Angelica Maisonet’s mind was made up.

“I don’t want to live in this world without [finishing] my degree,” she remembers saying.

But for Maisonet, earning her master’s in health services administration would mean more than studying and working hard. In November 2019, months before she was to complete her online degree, Maisonet was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. It was devastating news for the young mother. “You’re not prepared for any of this. I think it was the thinking that I could not see my daughter . . . grow.”

Another realization: for Maisonet to finish her degree — in English, a language she was still learning — she’d have to attend online classes while working, raising a young daughter, and enduring debilitating chemotherapy treatments.

But even cancer didn’t stand much chance against a young woman who already had survived much, including a devastating hurricane that killed thousands and upended her life in Puerto Rico just months before she started her Regis degree. A day after her final chemo treatment last summer, with her Regis degree in hand, Maisonet realized she had followed through on a promise she made years ago.

“My father told me one time, ‘You’re not going to be anything. You’re going to be a mother with six kids living in a government residential, or even, you’re going to be like [your mother and me], drug addicts.’ I tell him, ‘No, I’m going to prove you that’s not who I am.’”


Life-changing Upheaval

In September 2017, Maisonet, her husband and daughter were living in San Juan, Puerto Rico when the most destructive hurricane to hit the island in 80 years tore through. Hurricane Maria decimated the U.S. territory, led to the death of thousands and knocked out power across the entire island for months.

In the immediate aftermath, Maisonet and her young family did what other San Juan residents did — they drove to one of the island’s main highways, which she remembers as the only place where cell reception was still available. She stood on top of her car to call her sister in the Unit- ed States, letting her know that she and her family were OK.

Her sister offered her a lifeline to come to the mainland and live in her spare bedroom in Tampa, Florida. Able to pack only some clothes and forced to leave the rest of their belongings behind, Maisonet and her family came to Florida as little more than refugees.

“[We] lived in a queen-size bed, three of us, for four months, without [a] car, without anything, only believing that tomorrow is going to be a better day.”

During that time, Maisonet, who had been working in healthcare consulting in Puerto Rico, got a new job in the same field, at a company that would let her work remotely and stay in Florida. She and her husband eventually saved enough money to rent their own place, and she decided it was time to take the next step toward her dream: a master’s degree.

She researched online master’s degrees in health services administration, and decided she wasn’t going to settle for anything but the best, if she could afford it. The program at the top of her list? Regis.

“I have the University of [South] Florida like 20 minutes from my home. [I was] not going to do [a program] there. I’m going to do it with Regis.”

Fighting past the fear of starting a degree program as a non-native English speaker, Maisonet found solace in Regis professors, whom she found to be understanding, kind and flexible. “Regis gave me the opportunity to . . . handle my personal life, but at the same time, this university gave me the opportunity to do my degree at the same time with no stress. You don’t find universities that do that, most of the time.”


A Full Life Interrupted

Even while working and raising her daughter, Maisonet successfully made it to within a few months of finishing her degree in late 2019. Then she began to have ongoing stomach problems so severe that she was vomiting and could hardly eat.

When she went to the hospital, test results showed abnormally high calcium levels in her blood. “The doctor told me, ‘I don’t know how you are walking, as opposed to you are in coma right now.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I drive here.’”

Scans revealed a gigantic mass in her left ovary that was pushing on her intestines. It was ovarian cancer, an aggressive form of the disease — but it was caught early, in stage one. Still, by the end of November, she found herself in chemotherapy treatments every three weeks.

“You think you are invincible, you are powerful, you are young. I am 32 years old, I am at the peak of my life — I think — professionally, personally, everything. I am trying to accomplish the American Dream right now. And then . . . you have to stop all your dreams and everything.”

Initially, the cancer diagnosis forced her to put off finishing the Regis degree that was tantalizingly close. She also had to use vacation, sick time and family medical leave to take a month off work. But by Christmas, she became determined to start her life again — and to finish her degree — no matter how difficult it would be while undergoing chemotherapy and earning a paycheck.

“That’s something I said to my husband — I don’t want to live in this world without ending my degree. I want to end it, that’s why I’m receiving my treatment [and] at the same time doing my degree and working.”

For the final months of her degree, from February through April 2020, she had to adjust the rhythm of her life, work and schoolwork to accommodate her chemo treatments. Studying and writing papers in the first week after treatment was especially tough, Maisonet said. “It’s a fight inside you. Your mind is telling you, ‘you can do it, you can sit there and write 10 pages.’ But your body is telling you, ‘no, no, no. You have to go to bed.’”

So, she created a system: She attended virtual classes and studied as much as she could when she had energy, and she remained in close contact with professors, who offered flexibility when she needed it.

“She didn’t give up her goal,” said Melanie Smith, adjunct professor in the Rueckert-Hartman College for Health Professions, Maisonet’s instructor during her treatment. “And she asked for help, which is sometimes the hardest thing to do.”

Maisonet also benefited from the support of her husband and daughter, who helped her through every day when others couldn’t be with her in person due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“[My husband is] my soulmate. He’s like my balance in this life. I could give up easily if I didn’t have him . . . [And] when I feel like I could not have any strength at all, [my daughter] just give me a kiss and tell me, ‘Mommy, I love you.’”


New Beginnings

In late spring, just as she was about to graduate, Maisonet heard the best possible news: Her cancer was in remission. On Friday, May 22, she went alone for her final treatment — due to COVID-19 restrictions, her husband wasn’t permitted to join her — and celebrated with hospital staff. She walked out of the hospital to a surprise: her husband with a new car and a sign that read in large print: “Keep Calm, It’s My Last Chemo Today.”

The next day, Maisonet’s Regis diploma arrived in the mail. Her family celebrated with a graduation party, including a cap and gown, a cake, banners and photos. “We [cried] a lot, because it was like teamwork,” she said.

Since her graduation, Maisonet and her family have bought a house in Tampa, and she says her Regis degree likely will help her earn a promotion within her company. She hopes to pursue a doctorate degree someday — at Regis if possible — since it’s the only university she trusts.

“I think it’s a blessing to study in Regis . . . I could accomplish my professional dreams and get my master’s degree, but at the same time, I could live my life. I could . . . enjoy more of my family, my daughter growing up, my life right now — I’m blessed for my life.”