Professor battles cancer

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Balancing the demands of being an associate professor is a tough task, but few have to schedule classes around chemotherapy sessions. Denise Peterson does it every day — with a smile on her face.

Peterson was diagnosed with colon cancer in January of 2011. The cancer originated in the colon, but because the cancer cells reached her lymph nodes, the disease also spread to her liver.

Peterson was born in Appleton, Minn., and graduated from Lennox High School after four rewarding years of academics and extracurricular activities that included volleyball, golf, basketball, theater and music.

Peterson went on to attend the ‘school down south,’ the University of South Dakota, where she received her bachelor’s degree in history in 1986, her master’s degree in communication studies in 1988, and her Ph.D. in adult education in 1997.

SDSU students and faculty enjoy Peterson’s presence and impact on the campus, but her history as a Coyote often puts a target on her back for some playful jokes and harmless criticism.

“I get a lot of flack,” Peterson said, but she knows it is all in good fun.

Cancer can often be a touchy subject, but Peterson says she is comfortable and open about her situation. When asked what her initial reaction was when she found out she had cancer, Peterson said she really wasn’t stunned.

“I sort of suspected it, [but] it still took a while to sink in,” she said.

Peterson’s husband was present when they first found out about the diagnosis, but Peterson claimed that the hardest part was telling the rest of her family, especially her two kids.

“That was hard, but they bounced back well and have been really great about it,” she said.

Since that life-changing day almost two years ago, Peterson has experienced new perceptions and outlooks on life.

“I love my students and absolutely put my all into them, but I was kind of a workaholic,” she said. “[Cancer] made me sit up and notice that I need to spend time with my family, and that is really important to me.”

Family and friends have been some of Peterson’s highest priorities ever since her diagnosis with cancer.

“You don’t know if somebody is going to be taken from your life tomorrow or not,” she said.

Students and faculty on campus have supported Peterson since her diagnosis.

“I’ve been developing a network with other people on campus with cancer,” Peterson said. “My students are willing whenever they come up and talk to me to share their experiences about their family members and themselves.”

Returning the gift of endless and beneficial support is impossible, but Peterson hopes she has made an impact on her students as much as they have on her.

“I hope so,” she said. “That is my goal. Sometimes you don’t know if you’ve made an impact until years down the road when students come back and tell you.”

Peterson has learned a lot from her experiences in the past year and a half, whether they have been difficult or joyful, but if there is one piece of advice she could offer to people it is, “You are stronger than you think.”

“You learn what you can handle, and I always tell my students that I want them to go out feeling more confident about their leadership, because they are stronger than they think,” Peterson said.

Peterson’s impact on SDSU’s campus and her students has been eminent, and it is through her experience with cancer that she has grown closer to her students and her colleagues that she works with. Peterson even said she is comfortable enough with her cancer that she jokes about it with people now, much like people joke with her about her years at USD.

When asked if she will wear blue or red when USD visits Coughlin Alumni Stadium to play the Jackrabbits on Nov. 17, she jokingly said, “I will be wearing black, although I will be cheering for SDSU.”