In March of 2018, just a few months into the spring semester, Danielle Roche received shocking news. Her biopsy results came back positive for breast cancer. At just 36 and halfway into the Fresno State Doctor of Physical Therapy program, Roche had to make a defining decision.
Should she take some time off to focus on her health or continue with her studies?
With unwavering optimism, Roche chose the latter — and now she’s just days away from walking across the stage at Fresno State’s 108th Commencement with her Doctor of Physical Therapy degree and, more importantly, her health.
“When I got the diagnosis a year ago, I was pretty driven to keep going with the program,” Roche said. “I knew the treatment plan would take some time, so I was hoping to just take the rest of the semester step by step. School was such a good distraction, honestly. I was able to focus on school and not have to focus on things that weren’t in my control.”
Roche began her first round of chemotherapy right before finals that semester and, later that summer, continued with six rounds of chemotherapy every 21 days. Because of her treatment, Roche was given the opportunity to postpone the 12-week clinical rotation second-year students in the program typically complete. Instead, she will complete that clinical this summer.
One of 14 accredited physical therapy programs in the state, the Doctor of Physical Therapy program at Fresno State is the only one of its kind of Central California. According to the Commission on Accreditation for Physical Therapy Education, students must hold a doctoral degree to become a licensed physical therapist. On average, 32 students are admitted into the program each year.
During her three years in the program, Roche made it a priority to participate in rigorous research projects that helped individuals with Parkinson’s and limb loss. Through the physical therapy profession, Roche said she aspires to help her patients make positive changes, regardless of challenges that can arise. Her firsthand experience as the patient, not the provider, allowed her a unique perspective.
Roche said the support she received from her classmates and faculty in the department has been incredibly uplifting.
“Each semester, I would reevaluate my workload with faculty and go from there,” Roche said. “All of my professors have been so supportive, but they also had expectations. They set me up for success. Pretty much all I had do was keep going. If I had been diagnosed at a different point in the program, it would have been much more difficult. But receiving treatment in the last year of the program allowed me to stay with my cohort and make up my required clinical. It was all very serendipitous.”
During her treatment, Roche was able to form a close connection with Dr. Jenna Sawdon-Bea, an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy who faced her own fight with breast cancer seven years ago.
Although the two only had one prior class together, they ended up sharing life lessons of their own — with Sawdon-Bea offering perspective on the disease that affects one in eight women in the U.S. Through helpful advice and tips — and even grocery runs — Sawdon-Bea gave Roche the strength to persevere.
“Danielle is an incredible young woman who did not let her cancer define her,” Sawdon-Bea said. “Rather, it was her courage and strength throughout treatments, surgeries and school that really defined her. From Day 1, Danielle had a steadfast belief that she would beat cancer, continue and finish school and become a physical therapist. There is no doubt this journey will make her an even stronger health care provider and human being.”
Despite the challenges that came her way, Roche remained positive throughout her academic and health journey. As she gets closer to completing her doctoral program, she also looks forward to completing her medical treatments.
Roche finished her chemotherapy treatments this past August and, soon after, began targeted immunotherapy treatments that help the immune system fight infections and diseases. Next month, with successful completion of those treatments, she will be in remission.
“After having a bilateral mastectomy and completing six rounds of chemotherapy, my pathology results have come back negative,” Roche said. “Essentially the chemo killed the cancer. All of my outcomes have been the best they could possibly be with the course of treatment I took.”
Upon completing her clinical this summer, Roche looks forward to simply relaxing and taking things one day at a time — something that has been challenging to do the past year.
“I plan to study for boards in October, but before that I think I’ll go travel. Maybe take a vacation,” Roche said with a laugh.