On Sunday, November 29, 2020, Joyce DeGennaro passed away. She leaves behind her loving husband Darren and two young children. To continue her legacy, mourners may make a gift in Joyce’s name to the College of Nursing Memorial Scholarships fund.
Joyce DeGennaro ’03 ’09BSN ’13MS is using her own personal fight against breast cancer to provide UCF students with rare, real-world learning opportunities.
A UCF nursing instructor since 2013, DeGennaro regularly incorporates aspects of her cancer treatments into her coursework. These include recordings of invasive medical procedures and frank conversations about her health status.
“Everything from my chemotherapy ports being accessed to my lungs and stomach being drained of fluids have been a topic for in-class discussion,” says DeGennaro, who often records medical procedures with her cell phone as they are being performed on her, for the purposes of presenting them in class. “As a professional nurse, I can walk the class through each procedure, allowing them to ask questions about the process along the way. Also, I can provide my students with a safe, welcoming environment to ask personal questions to a Stage-4 cancer patient.”
DeGennaro’s evolution as a teacher and her ongoing battle with cancer began June 23, 2015. While getting dressed for work, she discovered a tender lump in her right armpit. DeGennaro’s worries were heightened by enlarged lymph nodes above her right clavicle, an ominous combination of signs. Immediately, she suspected breast cancer.
During her commute to UCF that morning, DeGennaro made the decision to turn her cancer fears into a teaching moment. She revealed her concerns to the class and opened a discussion on breast cancer warning signs, allowing students to examine the lump under her arm and above her clavicle.
“In the last few years, I’ve found that life is what you make of it, and I have chosen to make this aspect of my life a truly meaningful and impactful learning experience for my students.”
“At that particular moment, it wasn’t about me or my own health. It was about my students having a rare educational moment, something that they would probably never get to experience again inside of a classroom setting,” says DeGennaro, who called that class session one of the most meaningful of her career. “In the last few years, I’ve found that life is what you make of it, and I have chosen to make this aspect of my life a truly meaningful and impactful learning experience for my students.”
A biopsy and a CT scan soon confirmed that DeGennaro had an aggressive form of breast cancer, which had metastasized into her lymph nodes. The next five years would be comprised of chemotherapy, a bilateral mastectomy, four recurrences and more than 60 rounds of radiation therapy.
DeGennaro is one of more than three million women currently living with breast cancer in the United States. It is the second most commonly diagnosed form of cancer among American women. About 1 in 8 U.S. women will develop an invasive form breast cancer at some point in their lives. This year alone, there will be an estimated 325,000 newly diagnosed cases.
Annually, Breast Cancer Awareness Month is held in October to recognize those who are battling the disease as well as to increase awareness, promote testing and honor the memories of those who have passed.
DeGennaro is now in remission, but there have been indications that the cancer has returned. She has learned to take life one day at a time. In addition to her religious faith and family, DeGennaro says teaching has been a source of comfort and strength throughout her ordeal. Currently teaching all of her classes remotely due to COVID-19, she takes pride in the fact that she has never missed a class session at UCF.
Since being diagnosed, DeGennaro has been honored with the 2017 Advisor of the Year Award from the Florida Nursing Students Association. She served a two-year term as president of UCF’s chapter of the Sigma Theta Tau International Society of Nursing. Last year, she was one of 31 UCF professionals honored during the university’s annual Women’s History Month Recognition. But the impact that she has made on her students is her most meaningful distinction, DeGennaro says.
Megan Donnelly, a fourth-year nursing student currently taking DeGennaro’s Essentials of Nursing and Health Assessment class, says her courses emphasize the importance of forming a strong patient-nurse relationship.
“Engaging. Passionate. Dedicated. There are so many words that you could use to describe Joyce as a teacher and as a person that it’s hard to narrow it down to just a few,” says Donnelly, who plans to work in emergency and trauma medicine once she graduates from UCF next summer. “In Joyce’s class, not only does she teach the technical skills of nursing, but she emphasizes the human connection between a nurse and a patient by relating everything back to her own experiences. Her point of view, from a patient’s perspective, really resonated with me. I will absolutely be a more caring and emphatic nurse thanks to her guidance and teaching.”