Building Inner Resilience and Pursuing Passion: An Education Alumnus Journey

April 12, 2023

Alumnus Jovanna Sauro’s journey through cancer and graduate school was a challenging one that took a physical and mental tool, but she wouldn’t have changed it for the world.

From an early age, she had a passion for health and science. In high school, she had dreams of being a medical lab technician. However, after some introspection, she realized that it wasn't the right fit for her. 

Eventually, she found her calling as a Medical Office Assistant, but after a few years of working in temporary healthcare positions, she left the field to pursue higher education where she felt she could advance. 

Sauro joined SFU in 2015, initially feeling apprehensive and uncertain. “I came from a high-pressure hospital environment that was life or death,” shares Sauro. “The academic world was completely unknown to me, but I remember feeling this welcoming vibe. I soaked up this unfamiliarity and it felt exciting to be joining this world.”  

As she settled into her new surroundings, Sauro learned about the MEd in Health Education and Active Living program through a colleague, which immediately caught her attention. Despite not having a bachelor's degree and being unfamiliar with what a master's degree entailed, Sauro saw this as an opportunity to reconnect with healthcare and grow in education and did not want to let it slip away. 

When Sauro received her acceptance letter in May 2020, she was ecstatic. However, about a month later, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. “I had a difficult decision to make,” Sauro reflects. “I thought long and hard and weighed different outcomes. I felt strongly that If I didn’t go forward with the program, I would deeply regret it.” 

In her first two terms, she juggled chemotherapy treatments, and the “chemo brain” resulted in her slurring words and forgetting things. To counter this, Sauro did her readings and assignments on the days she felt best. Despite feeling lethargic, she was determined to carry on, seeing the program as a way of keeping her positive. “I don’t know where I would have been had I not done this program during treatment, says Sauro. “It gave me something to look forward to.”  

Sauro was greatly impacted by the classes in her program, which inspired her cancer-related research and journey. These classes, taught by Drs. Stephen Smith, Celeste Snowber, and Vicki Kelly, provided her with outlets for expression through writing, dance, research, and storytelling.

Sauro wrote about her experience with febrile neutropenia in Dr. Smith’s class, where she stressed the importance of a positive mindset, support system, active lifestyle, and adaptability. This encounter helped her realize the significance of compassion, which became a theme throughout the program. In Dr. Snowber’s class, Sauro explored the connection between art and well-being, which allowed her to pursue her research. She found inspiration in researching war dances to overcome her inner critic after her cancer treatment. Lastly, in Dr. Kelly’s class, Sauro learned the haka, a traditional New Zealand dance that helped her release pent-up anger about her diagnosis. She also discovered the healing power of Indigenous storytelling. “It resonated with me as a cancer survivor, as sharing stories can be healing and transformative,” says Sauro. 

Near the end of her program, Sauro found fulfillment in concluding her cancer-related research and personal journey in another class she took with Dr. Smith. She reflected on her progress since the beginning of the program and the shift in her perspective on cancer from a battle to a transformative journey for personal and career growth. 

The experience taught her valuable lessons about compassion, personal growth, and the importance of self-care, and it reconnected her to healthcare. She is now pursuing a health education-focused position. 

“I am particularly drawn to cancer-related work as a result of my own experiences and am always eager to connect with patients, survivors, and caregivers to offer support, share my cancer story, and provide education and advocacy.”