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Soliloquies of Persistence While Pursuing a PhD

By Katherine Casey Spengler, PhD

October 11, 2019, a phone call from the breast care clinic confirmed that the lump I had found in my left breast – 7 months after a clear mammogram – was malignant. At the time, I was a doctoral candidate in SDSU/CGU’s Joint Degree Program in Education, striving to complete the rough draft of my dissertation by the January 7 deadline. 

The call came when I was in Los Angeles for work and I spent the three hour drive back to San Diego in silent shock. My first thoughts went to my husband Joel, and daughter Anna, and then to my mother, who had lost our beloved father to laryngeal cancer twenty years ago: how in the world would I tell them I have cancer? What would this diagnosis mean for Joel? With no family history of breast cancer until now, what would this diagnosis mean for Anna? How would I continue to earn an income while in treatment? And, what would this mean for my dissertation-writing timeline? Could I stay on track to become a May 2020 graduate? If I did not finish my dissertation, would Anna know how much my love for her inspired my doctoral studies?

A whirlwind of medical appointments filled the dates in my calendar reserved for dissertation writing. Joel and Anna encouraged me to continue to work on my dissertation. A network of incredible women – including several cancer survivors – immediately blanketed me with support. Two of the cancer survivors were PhDs and one quipped, 

“Fighting cancer is hard. Writing a dissertation is hard. You might as well do both at once!” 

Treatment of my Stage III-B invasive lobular carcinoma with lymph node involvement would require a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. I wrestled with sharing my diagnosis with my dissertation chair because I did not want cancer to enter my academic world. She reassured me that she believed in my study and in my ability to persevere.

After a lumpectomy on November 13, a day after my 51st birthday, we were devastated when my surgeon called to report the margins were not clear. The cancer was more extensive than expected, leading to a mastectomy the day before Thanksgiving. When I thanked my surgeon for adjusting her holiday plans she said, You have a dissertation to write, don’t you? We don’t have time to waste.” 

My oncologist warned chemotherapy can cause “chemo brain,” which is cancer-related cognitive impairment or dysfunction. During the three weeks between surgery and my first chemo infusion on December 18, I wrote detailed outlines of chapters 4 and 5, afraid chemo would impair my ability to grapple with the analysis and implications of my findings. I spent New Year’s Day receiving my second chemo infusion and the days that followed were a blur that included Joel and Anna shaving my head because losing clumps of hair was distracting me as I wrote. Submitting the dissertation draft on January 7 felt like an unbelievable achievement! A few weeks later, I attended a dissertation writing bootcamp at SDSU on one of the “good days” of my chemo recovery cycle. Even though I felt vulnerable in my wig, I knew I needed the spark of motivation that comes from writing in the same space with fellow doctoral students. That spark propelled me forward to meet the February 7 deadline to turn in my final draft.

All doctoral candidates know how tricky it is to schedule a dissertation defense and I admit I played my one and only cancer card,” giving my chair permission to share my diagnosis with my committee members to get my dissertation defense scheduled for one of the “good days” between chemo rounds 6 and 7. My oncologist moved up a scheduled blood transfusion to the weekend before my defense to strengthen my immune system and boost my energy.

On March 6, 2020, I successfully defended my dissertation with my mother, mother-in-law, aunt, husband, daughter, and doctoral student friend in attendance and celebrated that evening surrounded by family and friends. Little did we know, for many of us, my dissertation defense party would be the last in-person gathering before the pandemic started shutting the world down over the course of the next week.

In late March, I rang the bell to celebrate my final chemo treatment, in May I wore full doctoral regalia to my virtual SDSU and CGU Zoom commencement celebrations in my dining room with Joel and Anna sitting by my side, and in June I rang the bell to celebrate the completion of radiation and cancer treatment.

In retrospect, the decision to work on my dissertation throughout chemo saved my cognition and prevented me from being overwhelmed by everything associated with a cancer diagnosis. I am grateful that my surgeon, oncologist, and radiation oncologist are highly successful women in their fields who unhesitatingly supported my goal. I am forever grateful for the love and support of my family and friends that allowed me to escape into a world where I could block out cancer and, instead, focus on dyslexia research and dissertation writing. 

As you know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. My cancer is considered “interval cancer,” or cancer that is found within the time between annual mammograms. I am alive with an excellent prognosis because at age 14 I learned why and how to do monthly self-breast exams. Please, I urge you to do the same.


  • Kay Casey

    Thank you, Katherine Mary, for being you.

  • Zandra Grady

    I didn’t know! I knew something was up when I saw pictures of you. You are beyond inspiring and I am so proud of the work and your love of Anna that saw you through the dissertation.

  • Toni Cameron

    This is an inspiring piece of writing, Katherine. Thank you for sharing your story. It’s an amazing accomplishment to get a PhD—and even more astounding is to do this while you were fighting cancer! Brava!!

  • Geralyn Clancy

    You are amazing. I am lucky to have met you, and I am so grateful that you are leading Shannon down a path of loving to read. 📚

  • Kellie Bernd

    Your dedication to honor Anna through your dissertation propelled you through all the ups and downs of cancer. You rock!!

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