People in profile

Staffer’s positive attitude helps conquer cancer and course

February 19, 2021
SFU staffer and student Jovanna Sauro found compassion and strength as she battled cancer, learned a new job and started a graduate degree—all during the pandemic.

Suffering a cancer diagnosis and treatment, learning a new job, and embarking on a full-time MEd program—all in the same year—is not for the faint of heart. Especially during a pandemic.

Yet Jovanna Sauro returns to work this week with a cancer-free verdict, an A+ in her first graduate course, and a new zest for her job as executive assistant to chief information officer Mark Roman.

Sauro’s positivity and ambition never flagged despite enduring four months of intensive chemotherapy and its side effects, which included brain fog, hair loss, extreme fatigue, and a scary hospital stay with a dangerous fever and infection. Despite all this, she remained positive and committed to beginning her MEd in Health Education and Active Living in September after returning home from hospital.

Embarking on the degree program was “really important,” she says. “I’ve always had a passion for healthcare and caring for others, and now especially after what I’ve gone through. That encouraged me even more to have compassion for myself, and to really create more compassion for others.”

She says her classmates, and professor, Stephen Smith, were compassionate and interested in her progress as she battled Hodgkins Lymphoma.

“Stephen was very patient with me when I’d explain how I was feeling from the chemo. It was tougher every round. I had to strategize how I was going to do the schoolwork.”

She did her readings while hooked up to chemo at the hospital, and completed her assignments and a paper, on the ‘good days’, although that became more difficult toward year’s end when ‘chemo brain’ caused increasing forgetfulness, slurred words and foggy thinking.

She says her job supervisor, Roman, was also extremely supportive throughout the process. Sauro took a six-month medical leave from work to focus on her recovery and on her studies.

She wrote her course paper about the differences that occur in the brain when the patient has a positive rather than a negative outlook.

“It’s called the salutogenic and neurobiological approach to coping with disease,” she says. “Salutogenesis focuses on connecting health, stress and coping.  

“It is possible to overcome the toughest challenges while coping with the endless mixed emotions associated with disease,” she says, pointing to her own positive mindset, active lifestyle, and strong support from her husband, Gabriel Sauro, an SFU undergraduate advisor and recruiter.

“Cancer doesn’t defy me. I defy it.”