RICHMOND — Mary Anderson survived breast cancer while she was earning a master’s degree in nursing leadership online from St. Joseph’s College in North Windham.

She also was holding down a top-level job as assistant chief nurse at the hospital at VA Maine Healthcare System-Togus.

“It certainly made me more driven to reach my goals in life,” Anderson, 53, of Richmond, said of her bout with cancer. “I love my job; I love where I work. I was very fortunate that the VA offers this program.”

Anderson was referring to a program in which the VA continues to pay its employees’ salaries as well as their education costs while they are pursuing college degrees. In exchange, employee-students agree to continue working for the VA for at least three years after they graduate.

She earned her master’s degree last December, but wanted to hold off on accepting it until spring so her 88-year-old father and her mother could watch her march in cap and gown with the May 12 graduation procession at St. Joseph’s.

Also earning a master’s degree Anderson was her friend Tiffany Rooney, of Vassalboro, who has worked with Anderson at different locations over the past 18 years. They were able to study together in some courses.

Rooney, a nurse manager for home-based primary care at Togus, is a survivor of thyroid cancer and lung cancer.

Anderson was born in Germany, where her father was stationed with the U.S. Army. When he retired, he moved back to his hometown of Bath, and Anderson graduated in 1976 from Morse High School in Bath. She received an associate degree in nursing in 1978 from Central Maine Medical Center in Lewiston and a bachelor’s degree in nursing in 1984 from the University of Southern Maine.

Anderson was head nurse in the emergency department of Bath Memorial Hospital and in the intensive care unit at Maine Medical Center in Portland. And she was director of the Gardiner unit of Healthreach Home Care and Hospice, where Rooney was a supervisor.

In Richmond, Anderson lives on 30-acres that she is starting to operate as an organic farm. She has some dogs and a big greenhouse full of vegetables.

Anderson enrolled in St. Joseph’s master’s degree program in September 2008. Six months later, in March, she was diagnosed with cancer in one breast after a mammogram at Midcoast Hospital in Brunswick.

“I remember I had my mammogram and they called me back for a biopsy,” Anderson said. “I had a sinking feeling that something was wrong.”

Anderson got an extension on her master’s degree studies and a medical leave from work. She made the decision to have a bilateral mastectomy, meaning both breasts were removed even though cancer had been found in only one.

The surgery was performed at Maine Medical Center in Portland.

“I had ductal cancer, which tends to go into the duct cells. After the surgery, they put saline bags in there. It’s a long process,” she said. “By the time you have the saline, you’re constantly filling up the bags to stretch the tissue.”

About a month after the surgery, Anderson had silicone implants placed where her breasts had been.

Altogether, Anderson said she only missed six to eight weeks of work and schooling. Her professors gave her more time to get her studies done and “I was able to stay on track.”

She’s had no recurrence if the cancer and sees an oncologist every three months and takes the oral medicine Tamoxifen.

Anderson said she was fortunate because the lymph node closest to the tumor was negative for cancer, so she didn’t have to endure radiation and chemotherapy treatments.

Anderson wants to let other women know that they must have mammograms and do self-examinations.

The National Cancer Institute estimates that 12.2 percent of women born today in U.S. — or about one in eight — will be diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I think survival depends on early detection,” Anderson said. “You have to make sure you know your body and make sure you follow up immediately with your provider (if a lump is detected). I have four daughters and they have a higher risk with their mother having breast cancer.”

Holding down a demanding full-time job while also studying online for a master’s degree would seem to be enough of a burden for any person. But Anderson managed it and also worked around her cancer treatment.

“You can get online with your course at any time,” Anderson said. “I made sure to get online every night after work and my whole weekends were spent with my classes.”

She and Rooney also attended summer school on the St. Joseph’s College campus for two years. They made friends among other students from around the country.

“We got connected personally with our classmates and advisors,” she said.

Anderson’s final research paper was more than 30 pages long and proposed an orientation method to retain new graduate nurses.

“The great thing about Togus is I got a scholarship and they paid for my education,” she said. “That’s one of the beauties of Togus. They have scholarships that pay your salary plus the education benefit.”


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