Commencement 2021: Cancer, pandemic didn’t stop Jenna Lopes from earning her degree in health and physical education

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Jenna Lopes
Jenna Lopes

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 27, 2021 – While excitedly preparing for her last semester of college and student teaching, Jenna Lopes got a phone call that no one ever wants to get.

It was from her doctor informing her that she had Stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a type of blood cancer that originates from a specific type of white blood cells, called lymphocytes, that build up in the lymph nodes and cause tumors. It is common among young adults between 18 and 20 years old.

Earlier in the summer, Lopes had experienced swelling in her neck and underwent a series of tests that confirmed the diagnosis.

“I was scared,” she said. “I immediately jumped to the worse conclusions and didn’t want to leave the people around me.”

Then, she said, survival mode kicked in and she began her six-month plan of chemotherapy treatments every other week, while continuing her studies and staying on track with assignments, even making the Dean’s List, all while dealing with the side effects of the treatment.

“I was super lonely from my cancer diagnosis and being in a pandemic, but I really wanted to prove to myself that I could still graduate and overcome all of this,” Lopes said.

Lopes, a first generation Portuguese-American from East Providence, and the first in her family to earn a college degree, wasn’t going to let her diagnosis and treatment stop her from all she had worked so hard to achieve.

“I struggled to get into college in the first place due to my SAT scores. I was part of the Talent Development program, and did six weeks of classes during the summer before my freshman year to get into college,” she said.

Going through cancer treatment in the midst of the pandemic, Lopes was also concerned about further affecting her already compromised immune system and had to take extra precautions to ensure she would not contract the virus.

Her strong support system, including her parents, a few classmates and her boyfriend, Trey, helped through the rough spots, as well as Professor Furong Xu in the School of Education.

“What impressed me the most about Jenna is her can-do attitude and resilience,” said Xu. “During her chemotherapy, she was staying positive and setting high standards for herself as always. She tried to help her classmates whenever she could and played a key role in her group project. The quality of her class work remained excellent. She rarely asked for an extension despite the side effects of her chemotherapy.”

Her positive attitude is also what gave her the determination to virtually student teach health and physical education at Fallon Elementary School in Pawtucket, having completed chemotherapy just days before she began student teaching.

Lopes said it was harder to connect with students virtually without equipment or space for movement, so she had to get creative with her lessons and used dance and yoga to explain fitness techniques.

These lessons kept her focused and gave her a sense of returning to a more normal lifestyle, before cancer and the pandemic. And she knows that when the time comes for her to teach her students about communicable diseases and cancer, she will have the courage to stand before them and explain the effects first-hand.

“She will make an excellent teacher,” said Emily Clapham, associate professor and director of the Physical Education, Health Education, Teacher Education program. “She is an inspiration to us all.”

As for Lopes, her plan is to follow her father Luis’ advice of “sempre para frente,” which means “keep moving forward” in Portuguese.