Loretta Mask: A Dream Deferred, But Not Forgotten

Loretta Mask graduated from Drury University in St. Robert in May 2017. It’s a major achievement for most, but when Mask walked across the stage at the O’Reilly Family Event Center and receives her bachelor’s degree in general studies, the moment will be even more monumental.

After transferring from two previous universities, attending school on and off for more than 20 years and overcoming a serious health scare that debilitated her for two semesters while at Drury, Mask realized her dream of graduating from college in May. Actually, it’s only part of the dream. Mask plans to continue her studies in one of Drury’s Master in Education programs and one day soon, teach high school history.

Mask was initially apprehensive about going back to school, but Drury’s advisors and instructors in St. Robert allayed any fears she had. “I went and spoke to Ms. Donna and just felt right at home,” Mask says now in regard to Donna King, coordinator of the business office in St. Robert.

That hominess extended from the business office to the classroom, where Mask says her instructors gave her the personal attention she desired.

“Any time you start something new, you’re nervous,” Mask says. “But the professors were amazing. They calmed my fears. They worked with me when I wasn’t sure. That’s one thing I like about being here. All of the professors are very personal. If you see them out on the street, you can say, ‘Hi.’ If you have a question about your class, they’re going to answer you no matter what – by email, phone, any way they can.”

Mask began her studies at Drury in fall 2014. She excelled in the classroom her first three semesters at the university, making the dean’s list and carrying at 4.0 GPA into the spring 2016 semester. Then, on May 3, 2016, everything changed. Mask received a call from her doctor. On a routine checkup, she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. “Total shock,” Mask says now recalling the phone call. “Whenever you hear the word ‘cancer,’ you think, ‘Oh, my God, I’m going to die.’ And then you think, ‘I can’t. I’ve got kids. I’ve got a family.’” 

The diagnosis also came a week before finals. No matter – Mask would not be deterred.

“What I did was just finish that semester out and took my finals. It took my mind off of things,” she says. Mask underwent surgery in June and started on the path to recovery. Unfortunately, she later received more bad news – the cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, meaning she would have to undergo chemotherapy and radiation.

Still, Mask would not be defined by this debilitating disease. She would not let it consume her life. “That was my mindset. Cancer is not beating me. Cancer is not going to win,” Mask says. “I watched my brother die of brain cancer. I watched my brother-in-law die of brain cancer and lung cancer. It was not going to take me down. School became my out. I could focus on that. I could study. And cancer was nowhere in that classroom.” 

Mask began chemotherapy in fall 2016, but still made it to class almost every night. And when she couldn’t make it to class, her instructors went out of their way to make sure she stayed up on her assignments. “There were times when the chemo had made me so sick that I wasn’t going to be able to make it to class,” Mask says. “I would call the professors and talk to them, and they would tell me what they were talking about in that class and give me some notes or email me the assignment so I could get it done for the next class. Every professor that I’ve had has been really amazing.”

Just before her finals that semester, Mask started radiation treatment. She endured 33 rounds of radiation, riding with her husband from St. Robert to Rolla five mornings a week for six weeks for treatment, coming back home to change and grab her books, and going to class in the evenings. “It burnt me so bad I got third degree burns, and the burn was 21 inches long and nine inches tall,” she says. “It was very painful putting clothes or anything on.”

There were days when the pain was so bad, and Mask was so worn out from her treatments, that she couldn’t carry her books to class. Thankfully, her classmates were always there to lend a hand. “They would carry my books and pack my stuff up for me so I didn’t have to move so much,” Mask says. “Everybody’s really helpful around here.” Despite all the setbacks and stress of radiation treatment, Mask completed the spring 2017 semester with a 3.6 GPA. “I worked hard. I gave it my all,” says Mask.

In August 2017, she finally received some good news. Mask’s doctor informed her she was cancer free. Her last cancer treatment intravenously would be August 31, 2017, only days after the fall 2017 semester started. She would have the chance to complete her last year of college without cancer. “By going to school and doing my best, cancer didn’t beat me. I won,” Mask says. “I just needed to do something for myself, and to show myself, my children and my family that I could survive no matter what. And, that’s what I did. When you just set your mind to do something and you want to beat something so bad, you just do it. I also showed my children that no matter what life throws at you, you do your best and keep striving and you’ll be okay,” she adds.

When Mask graduated, she didn't walk alone. Her husband also graduated with a bachelor’s from Drury, and one of her daughters will be received her associate’s from the university. “I would recommend Drury to anyone," Mask says. "This school’s been a blessing to me. That’s how I look at it.”

Mask hopes her story of perseverance serves as a lesson to others, including her youngest daughter. “My 10-year-old, she was eight when I was diagnosed,” Mask says. “She knew what cancer was. She had seen her uncles pass from it. She had seen it as a death sentence. And then she sees her mommy not let cancer beat her and going to school and doing her best. For her, it really hit home because she’s there all the time. So I hope it’s a lesson that other people can take – never give up, no matter what.”