For Kerrie Lynch and Gaby Chaparro, graduating from UCF on Saturday, Aug. 8, will mark the end of an endurance test with cancer that they found – and treated – during their intense nursing curricula.

Both women credit the UCF College of Nursing, as well as their overall UCF experience, with saving their lives.

Lynch, 43, found her breast cancer after learning what a breast tumor feels like in a nursing lab. Chaparro, 27, discovered she had colon cancer after taking a nursing course that covers chronic diseases and after visits to UCF Health Services.

Despite their daunting health challenges after they were diagnosed in fall 2008, both students stayed in school while undergoing their cancer treatments. They refused to let cancer get in the way of graduating with their class.

“I’m proud that these brave women are willing to share their stories to help others. Early detection is what saves lives,” said College of Nursing Dean Jean Leuner, who is a breast cancer survivor.

Lynch and Chaparro didn’t know each other until last week. Lynch attended nursing classes on UCF’s main campus, and Chaparro studied nursing at UCF Cocoa.

In Lynch’s Health Assessment Lab class, nursing students used fabricated models and simulated body parts to learn how to assess patients. Breast examinations were part of the curriculum.

“I remember thinking in the lab, ‘This is what a breast tumor feels like. It’s like a little Jelly Belly underneath the skin,'” Lynch said. “The next semester, I was doing a monthly self breast exam, and I felt that same little Jelly Belly feeling under my skin.”

After doctors’ visits, mammograms, an ultrasound and a surgical biopsy in September 2008, Lynch was diagnosed with cancer. Her chemotherapy, four treatments over a 12-week period, started on Dec. 30, 2008. Her radiation therapy involved 33 treatments over six weeks and concluded May 18.

“Kerrie is an extraordinary young woman who took control of a very difficult situation at a time when she was starting a new career, and she persevered,” said Leuner, the dean who became Lynch’s personal mentor.

Chaparro, who had been experiencing ongoing gastrointestinal symptoms, took a nursing class that covers chronic adult health conditions and learned that many gastrointestinal diseases have similar symptoms. She wondered if her discomfort was caused by a condition such as celiac disease or Crohn’s disease.

Because of her young age of 26, doctors did not suspect anything serious and told her that her symptoms were related to stress. But Chaparro’s worsening symptoms in the summer of 2008 prompted her to visit UCF Health Services.

UCF nurse practitioner Kristina Grabnickas examined her and grew concerned over Chaparro’s significant weight loss and aversion to eating. Grabnickas urged Chaparro to see a gastroenterologist, who diagnosed her with colon cancer, which is extremely rare in young adults. In December 2008, after the surgical removal of the cancerous portion of her colon, Chaparro was told her cancer had spread to a lymph node. She endured six months of chemotherapy that concluded in June.

Lynch and Chaparro received ongoing support and encouragement from UCF faculty, advisors and fellow nursing students as they endured their grueling treatment schedules. Instructors and coordinators adapted their curricula to allow for cancer treatments while keeping the students’ graduation goals on course. Instructors planned clinical and community experiences – requirements for a nursing degree – that would not pose added risks to their health.

“Keeping them healthy during the time when their immune system was compromised was our top priority,” Leuner said.

Lynch, who holds a bachelor’s degree in finance from the University of Missouri and is graduating with honors next week, plans to work at a hospital.

Chaparro also would like to work as a hospital nurse to experience different aspects of nursing. She eventually wants to earn her master’s degree and become a nurse practitioner.

“I feel like I’ve had two graduations,” she said. “I finished chemo at the end of June, and now I’m finishing my nursing degree. This is definitely my greatest accomplishment, and I will be a better nurse because of it.”

By Kimberly Lewis