Sweltering in the afternoon heat, Kourtney Lampedecchio stood waiting with hundreds of her fellow graduates in a big outdoor tent on the UC Davis campus Thursday.
She didn't ask for special accommodations, though a growing tumor in her neck made her back and arms ache, and she had undergone radiation therapy just hours before donning her cap and gown.
Lampedecchio, 31, received her master of fine arts degree in theater design on Thursday, four years after she was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer that spread through her body, broke her spine and laced her brain with more than a dozen tumors.
When she marched inside the ARC Pavilion with her classmates and walked across the stage, her mother, Vicky Morasci, of Placerville, let out a yell and brushed away tears. As her daughter left the stage, Morasci raced down the bleacher steps and they embraced, weeping. Lampedecchio said she was overwhelmed she had lived to graduate.
"I used to say that if I died tomorrow, at least I was doing something that I loved," Lampedecchio said. "I made it to this point. Now if I died tomorrow I'd feel like I really did something. I'm pretty happy at the moment."
Refusing to surrender to an illness that doctors say should have killed her long ago, Lampedecchio plans to move to Los Angeles. She hopes to break into movie and TV set design and has already been making connections in the industry and arranging to transfer her medical care from UC Davis to UCLA.
"Now that I have a degree, I feel like I have a better shot at doing the work I want to do," she said. "I have to at least try."
Lampedecchio has dozens of tumors in her brain and bones. The cancer destroyed vertebrae, requiring two spinal fusion surgeries. It led to an ongoing series of radiation and chemotherapy treatments that won't cure her cancer, but have kept it in check.
Just hours before graduation, Lampedecchio put on a hospital gown and entered a linear accelerator at the UC Davis Cancer Center in Sacramento. Radiation therapists immobilized her face in a white mesh mask and directed a beam of radiation at a tumor that is spreading in her neck and threatening to compress her spinal chord and paralyze her.
She did not volunteer that she was in pain. When asked directly, she said: "I have pain in my middle back, my arms really hurt, and my thumbs are numb."
Afterward, smiling and laughing in sunglasses and a fedora that covered her bare head, she said the spaceship-like accelerator and strange white mask were like elements in a set design. She had used another of her treatment masks in an art-class project. She also made art from titanium rods that once supported her spine, then snapped, requiring a second lengthy surgery. Her surgeon gave the faulty hardware to her in plastic bags.
Lampedecchio's ability to survive the past four years with a rare and aggressive form of cancer, and to keep up with her work and studies have astounded the staff at the cancer center. Over the years, she's undergone radiation treatments to control tumors in her brain, breast and hip.
"The main thing about Kourtney is her spirits are so high," radiation oncologist Jyoti Mayadev said in the hospital hallway. "She has that self-effort and determination."
UC Davis professor Thomas Munn said Lampedecchio decided to learn lighting design this year and threw herself into it, creating the lighting plots for several student productions.
"Like everything else, when she attacks it, she attacks it," Munn said. "She learned two years worth of coursework in about three months."
At times when Lampedecchio was especially sick, Munn said he worried she wouldn't survive the week. But then she'd rally and work twice as hard. "I think the sickness has probably given her a strong sense of purpose and determination," he said.
Among family members at the graduation ceremony in the ARC Pavilion on Thursday were Lampedecchio's stepfather Gregg Morasci, her grandmother Diane Sharp and nephew Richard Divodi, 6. As the graduates lined up outside before the ceremony, Vicky Morasci put a lei of orchids around her daughter's neck.
"Hi, baby. Congratulations," she said, hugging and kissing her.
Four years ago, in June 2008, Morasci flew to Colorado, where her daughter was working as a scenic artist, to care for her after her back broke and doctors found the cancer. She said at first she "cried and howled at the moon" and wished she could "get sick and go first."
"You want to put the order back right. Mother goes before child," she said.
But then the tasks of life and treatment took over. "You just deal with it," she said. "You have to."
Her daughter, she said, has the same attitude but more so. Neither mother nor daughter are ready to give up.
The two traveled to Paris together in December, a place Lampedecchio had always wanted to go. Her daughter's energy level was low, Morasci said, but she seemed to recover at the Louvre, where the artwork entranced her.
"She could curl up in a ball and let herself pass, or she could move on," Morasci said. "We both feel this is her path. We don't feel it's done yet."