Deana Ruston doesn’t know anything outside of relentless, forward progress.
Last week, she graduated from King’s University College with a Bachelor of Arts in Thanatology (Grief Counselling) and a Certificate in Loss, Grief & Bereavement. Such an occasion undoubtedly follows hard work, dedication and academic perseverance for all graduates. But for Ruston, the accomplishment signals overcoming significant physical and mental-health challenges, too.
Ruston, who has a twin sister, was born at 25 weeks’ gestation in 1992 – the girls both weighed less than 2 pounds at birth and stayed in intensive care for more than four months.
“A few months after arriving at Western, I began experiencing endless worry about pretty much every aspect of my life and the world around me. I began missing classes due to feeling so tired and anxious,” she said.
She was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. With support from the First Episode Mood and Anxiety Program at London Health Sciences Centre, Ruston was able to complete her first year at Western.
Then, in December 2014, Ruston was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. She had surgery to remove the 4-cm mass as well as her thyroid and 95 lymph nodes during Reading Week and followed that with radiation later in 2015. Through surgery and treatment, Ruston pressed on with her studies, completing exams and assignments with no delay or time off.
“My first reaction, when I found out (I had cancer), was ‘What about school? I’m in the middle of semesters here.’ I took a few days off and could have had (exams) moved. But I didn’t want to worry about doing it. I felt well enough to do it – a little tired, but other than that, I was fine,” she said.
“I wanted to show myself and to others that anything is possible – if you believe and put your mind to it. I knew I could do it.”
Last month, Ruston underwent a second surgery and will likely need more radiation in late summer. She wants others in similar circumstances – and students, especially – to know it is possible, and empowering, even, to work towards goals while overcoming challenges.
“My key piece of advice to those dealing with some tough stuff is, it might take you a little bit longer, you might need a little more help but it is possible,” Ruston said.
Now graduated, Ruston hopes to work with Western and its affiliates to help develop supports for students who want to continue their schoolwork while dealing with significant health challenges.
“Society might look at you and think you need to take time off. But you don’t have to do that. You can, but you don’t have to. Through difficulties, it might be hard but keep positive and face adversity and reach out for help, sooner rather than later. Help is there,” she said.