Muskegon Grandmother graduate Despite trials, woman is getting master's degree in public administration

By Megan Hart

The Muskegon Chronicle

MUSKEGON, Mich. (AP) -- Five years ago, Grace Webb started working on a master's degree without a clear plan in mind for what she would do when she graduated.

One thing's for sure, though: Cancer wasn't on her list of possibilities.

The Muskegon woman has one more class to finish before she gets her master's degree in public administration, justice and security from University of Phoenix's online degree program. She started taking classes in 2007, while she was working with medical records at the Grand Rapids Home for Veterans.

Everything changed a few months later, in March 2008, when she found a lump in her breast while doing a self-exam. The biopsy came back positive: cancer. But her mother was also sick, and put herself "on hold" until May, when she underwent a mastectomy that removed both breasts and the surrounding lymph nodes, and reconstructed the breasts with other tissue.

It wasn't over after a week in the hospital, though. Webb had to have chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She had frequent headaches, nausea and a metallic taste in her mouth, her hair fell out and she began to doubt that God was listening to her.

"You know the cartoon where they have the ugly duckling? That's how I felt, like an ugly duckling," she said.

She didn't want to eat or go out, and one rainy day her companion and caregiver William Seals called her adult son to come and talk to her.

"He said 'You're not an ugly duckling. You're my mom,'" she said, crying a little with the memory. "And that's when I started gaining it back a little. I did lose my faith, but I gained it back."

She needed another reconstructive surgery in 2010 because she was having trouble bending over, and that recovery was more difficult than after the first surgery, she said. She felt depressed, and decided it was the time to revisit the degree she had started pursuing three years before. Some days she didn't feel well enough to get up, so she worked from her bed, with books around her and a headset that translated speech into type on a computer screen.

She said she sometimes wanted to quit, but she couldn't let her three children and 10 grandchildren down. Or herself.

"Each class was a struggle, but the satisfaction was in knowing that I passed each class," she said. "It still is a struggle, but I know the reward will be beautiful."

Almost four years later, life still isn't easy, though doctors haven't found any signs of cancer, Webb said. She was recently diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a pain disorder whose causes aren't entirely clear. She said she also has some weakness and swelling in her right arm that makes it nearly impossible to write on her bad days, though that isn't evident from her handshake.

She's scheduled to walk with her class in May. As she talks about her journey, it sinks in that that's only days from the anniversary of her first surgery.

"Wow," she said softly. "I made it through. With my back pain, my fibromyalgia, my tendinitis, all the ailments I have throughout my body - that's a journey.

People sometimes say they don't know how she did it, or don't think they could handle a battle with cancer, she said. And she tells them they would have survived, that a little faith is all it takes to come through a crisis, whether of health or anything else.

She said she doesn't know exactly what she'll do when she gets her degree, but she wants to use her story to inspire others to make positive changes in their lives.

"That ugly duckling has turned into a beautiful swan," she said. "And that's what I am."

Published: Thu, May 3, 2012


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