Loss of sister, autism diagnosis didn't stop this grad

Bianca Peña, who graduated from GCU on Monday with her bachelor's degree in behavioral health science, paused her studies to help care for her younger sister, who was 14 years old when she was diagnosed with cancer. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

● Slideshow and replay of Monday morning ceremony.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Bianca Peña’s sister, Nancy, had that vacation excitement about her after coming home from a two-week visit with their brother in Texas.

But their mom noticed right away that Nancy didn’t look right.

“She just looked severely bloated,” said Peña.

It was enough to concern the family. Enough to go to the emergency room, then head to Phoenix Children's Hospital, where everything happened too fast. Where the Peña family got the devastating news.

Peña (left) with sister Nancy.

Nancy, who was 14 at the time, had ovarian cancer.

She was in for the fight of her life, and Nancy was a fighter, giving everything she had through her chemotherapy treatments. A year later, in 2016, her cancer went into remission, but the joy the family felt was short-lived.

The cancer she fought so hard to beat returned.

During Nancy's cancer battle, Peña had started her studies as an online student at Grand Canyon University while working a 40-plus-hour-a-week job. She would take her computer with her during her sister’s chemotherapy treatments and worked around life as best she could. Peña eventually put her studies on hold. Her sister needed her.

“I had to take time off,” said Peña, who was by Nancy's side as she battled through surgeries and three-times-a-week chemotherapy treatments. “... There were days just seeing her in pain was hard.”

After fighting cancer off for a second time, her body was run down from the chemo.

"It debilitated her,” Peña said.

Within three months, the cancer returned.

Nancy entered a research study clinical trial, but it was too late. “There wasn’t much they could do," Peña said. "We tried the trial, but her body couldn’t take it.”

Peña said she knew she had to finish her degree to honor a promise to her sister.

Nancy passed away three years after her diagnosis. She was just 17.

“I was by her side up until she took her last breath in my arms,” Peña said. “We were 15 years apart, but we were best friends.”

The loss of her sister broke her, but Peña did the only thing she knew how to do: Keep going.

Since her sister’s death, she has become the primary caretaker for her mom, who now lives with her. Nancy's cancer battle took a lot out of her mom, who no longer has the ability to drive and struggles with other health issues. Like with her sister, Peña makes sure her mom takes her medication and shuttles her to doctor’s appointments.

“She hasn’t really recovered from losing my sister,” said Peña, who has been challenged by her own health issues.

Doctors recently diagnosed her with autism.

Peña recently was diagnosed with autism. At first she was angry with the diagnosis but now accepts it with pride, she said. (Photo by Ralph Freso)

“I was super surprised about that. That totally came out of left field. At first I was in denial. I thought they were crazy,” she said, thinking at first that the diagnosis just couldn't be right. She was determined to find a different health provider. Get a different answer.

But when the medical professionals started going through all the questions on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule, the standardized diagnostic test for assessing autism, Peña said, “A lot of things made sense. My childhood was not necessarily bad, but I was different. People would say I was dramatic. When I was a kid, literally I would cry for nothing. I would cry at the drop of a hat. There were certain things I did that were weird, but now it makes sense. It wasn't weird. It was just part of the autism.”

Peña looked back on her academic journey, which started after she transitioned out of the food industry and started working with children in the Department of Child Safety system in 2012.

To move forward in her career at a nonprofit behavioral health agency, she needed a college degree and chose GCU because she wanted to approach her higher education as an online student. GCU felt like the best place she could do that.

“Right after high school, I tried community college. It was terrible. I couldn’t do it. It was the worst experience ever. There were just too many people. ... It was overwhelming.”

One of the things Peña finds fulfilling is volunteering for the Golden Paws Foundation, which provides individuals and organizations with therapy dogs.

Peña reasoned that she just didn’t like school.

But the autism explained that away.

At first, Peña was angry at the diagnosis, but now, “I accept and display the diagnosis with pride,” she said of how that knowledge has been freeing. “It has allowed me to be myself and not what others expect of me.”

Peña, who volunteers for the Golden Paws Foundation, which provides individuals and organizations with therapy dogs, finally accomplished one of her biggest goals on Monday. After taking breaks between classes because of the challenges life threw at her, she received her bachelor's in behavioral health science. She joined some 30,000 other traditional and online students at GCU who are being conferred their degrees this spring over 11 ceremonies spanning six days.

Peña, who loves caring for people, will continue to work in the nonprofit behavioral health world, which she loves. As GCU leaders would say, she found her purpose.

“Throughout this journey, there were times I wanted to give up. I would try to convince myself that I don’t need this degree. But I kept going. After my sister passed, I knew I needed to do it for her.”

She has met her challenges much like her sister.

“Not once did she (Nancy) say she was done. She kept on fighting. She wanted to continue," Peña said. "She never gave up.

"She was probably stronger than I was. She gave me the motivation to keep going. I know she’s looking down on me, smiling that I finished my degree, as promised.”

Grand Canyon University senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


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