BY RICK FORGIONE

forgioner@gnnewspaper.com

Renee Demski isn’t sure how to react when she walks on stage to receive her college degree from Niagara University today.

She’s considering doing a handstand, or maybe dancing the jitterbug.

“I’ll probably end up crying.”

She has every right to. At age 50, Demski has spent the last 11 years of her life splitting time between her family, work and taking part-time courses at Niagara University. All of that seems minor compared to her biggest challenge — being diagnosed with cancer last November.

“There was a time that I didn’t think I was going to live to graduate,” Demski said, tears tricking down her face. She quickly wipes them away and smiles. “It’s OK, because the story has a happy ending.”

That ending includes her joining the 691 Niagara University students graduating today during a commencement ceremony at 12:30 p.m. in Alumni Arena at the State University at Buffalo. Demski is receiving her bachelor’s degree in computer science, with minors in criminal justice and computer crime.

She’s hoping the degree will land her a job designing data bases or web pages — preferably at Niagara University, where she’s worked the past 15 years as secretary for the dean of student affairs.

“Hopefully something on campus breaks through,” she said. “I have many friends here that I love greatly.”

The fact she’s finally graduating didn’t quite hit her until recently when she picked up her cap and gown.

“When I saw my name on that list, I started to cry,” she said. “There have been many sacrifices along the way, but the end justifies all of them.”

After spreading out courses through 10 years, Demski loaded her academic plate this past fall so she could graduate in May. She signed up for three classes, the maximum for part-time students. Despite the occasional time crunch, everything was going well.

All of that changed one morning in September when she woke up to find her left eye swollen and a lump over it. Figuring it was just a bug or spider bite, she waited almost two weeks before her husband, Charlie insisted she go see a doctor.

“I told him I was too busy to see a doctor,” Demski said. “So he made the appointment for me and told me when I had to go.”

The doctor could not determine the cause of Demski’s eye problems. She was later referred to a specialist and underwent a CAT scan and a biopsy on her eye. The results came back Nov. 2 over the telephone.

“They said I had a tumor and it was cancerous and that it was very aggressive and fast spreading,” Demski said, her eyes again welling up. “I was told they had to remove the tumor and my eye to save my life — and that I needed to make a decision within two weeks. I felt like I was literally falling down a black hole.”

Not satisfied with the diagnosis, Demski and her husband sought a second opinion from Roswell Park Cancer Institute. The results came back the same, but there were some alternative treatments, including chemotherapy to reduce the tumor enough to remove it without taking out her eye. Despite the threat the cancer was spreading fast and could eventually move to her brain, Demski opted for chemotherapy.

Meanwhile, she began seeking answers elsewhere and started praying to God for spiritual guidance. She attended a healing mass one evening at Victory Christian Center in Lockport.

“I walked up to the pastor and he prayed over me,” she said. “It was very powerful.”

Soon afterwards, Demski returned to Roswell to get information about her chemo treatments, but was told more tests had to be done to confirm what was wrong. On April 9, she went through another CAT scan and the results were shocking.

“The doctor said the only thing that showed up was my left tear gland was a little bigger than the right one,” Demski said. “He put his arms in the air and said ‘you did have cancer, but you don’t have cancer now.’ ”

While the medical staff at Roswell were baffled at the new results, Demski and her husband have their own theory on what happened.

“This is a miracle from the Lord,” she said. “He took the cancer from me. I’m cancer free.”

Demski was able to complete her final courses over the spring semester and will graduate today with a computer science degree and a 3.2 grade-point average. Not bad for someone who was afraid she would lose her job when the office switched over to computers 12 years ago.

“It was very challenging through the years — a lot of tears would fall,” she said. “But every time I thought I couldn’t handle it and wanted to stop, my husband was there to support me. He would say, ‘you’re an achiever, don’t quit.’ ”

Ask Charlie Demski, and it’s his wife who’s supported him.

“She’s been my rock through the years and stood by me,” he said. “She’s passionate, compassionate and loyal.”

And while she’s debating on whether to do the jitterbug on stage today, he’ll be in the crowd, holding back tears.

“She’s an amazing person who can come into a room and start a party,” he said. “I’m just very proud of her.”

Contact Rick Forgione at 282-2311, Ext. 2257.

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