Life

96-Year-Old Woman Gets Breast Cancer Diagnosis Weeks Before Graduating from College

When you’re well into your tenth decade of life, the idea of being diagnosed with breast cancer seems about as remote of a concern as having to worry about passing your college final exams. Unless, of course, you’re Violet Edwards, who earlier this year had to deal with both.

The Parkland resident learned she had breast cancer at age 96 – just weeks before she was supposed to graduate from college. But thanks to the experts at Baptist Health Lynn Cancer Institute, Mrs. Edwards was able to collect her diploma and continue enjoying every day with her family and friends.

Now a spry and still-active 97-year-old, Mrs. Edwards is beloved by many at Aston Gardens, the assisted living facility where she says with a hint of pride that she “lives in the independent living section.” People love her for her smiles and her laughter, she says – “I’m very outgoing and social. I’m always cheerful and happy” – but they also love her for her cooking, especially her Jamaican fruitcake, which she makes for birthday parties and other special occasions.

Years ago, while living and working in the New York area, Mrs. Edwards put her own college hopes on hold while helping her daughter get through medical school and start her career as a perinatologist. Her daughter, Dr. Christine Edwards, also lives in Parkland and today is medical director of Florida Perinatal Center.

Mrs. Edwards says she always intended to go back to college but time and circumstances prevented her from pursuing her dream. However, with her 100th birthday in 2025 starting to come into focus, she decided to complete her studies online and get her degree at Mercy College. She was just three weeks away from earning her degree, busy studying for her final exams, when her annual mammogram results came back as suspicious.

A challenging time

Kerry-Ann McDonald, M.D., breast surgical oncologist with Baptist Health Lynn Cancer Institute

Her daughter took her to Lynn Cancer Institute in Boca Raton, which is part of Baptist Health, where she saw breast surgical oncologist Kerry-Ann McDonald, M.D. “A biopsy revealed that Mrs. Edwards had stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma in her left breast,” Dr. McDonald recalls. “Despite this, she was in good spirits and very positive when I first saw her, and she seemed to be a very fit 96-year-old with an excellent prognosis.”

Mrs. Edwards, who would require surgery to remove her tumor, remembers it as “a challenging time” in her life. To complicate matters, her surgery was scheduled on the same date as her Spanish final exam. She didn’t want to have to postpone her surgery, so she asked her teacher if she could take the exam on a different day. “She let me take it a day early,” Mrs. Edwards says.

Dr. McDonald says Mrs. Edwards’ tumor was surgically removed on April 28 and that “she breezed through her surgery very well.” Because of her advanced age, the decision was made to forego a sentinel lymph node biopsy, a standard of treatment for patients with invasive breast cancer but one that can have side effects for some people.

“For older patients like Mrs. Edwards, a sentinel lymph node biopsy really wouldn’t impact survivability and it can also cause lymphedema and other side effects,” Dr. McDonald says. Her patient’s age also factored into the decision to omit chemotherapy – which normally would be used for patients with her type of cancer – and employ radiation therapy instead, which she says Mrs. Edwards “tolerated pretty well” with few side effects.

Getting her diploma and making history

Before starting her radiation therapy, however, Mrs. Edwards received her associates degree from Mercy College, earning a 4.0 GPA in the process. She became the oldest Black woman ever to graduate from college in the U.S., and the fifth oldest person in the world to earn a college degree, according to media reports, of which there were many. Even more remarkable was the fact that she managed to do it while fighting cancer.

A graduation ceremony was held for Mrs. Edwards at Aston Gardens, where she was feted by family, friends and staff. By the next day she had become a media celebrity. “I was in the papers, on radio, on TV, CNN,” she laughs. “There was even a station in Jamaica that interviewed me.”

“I wasn’t afraid at all”

Mrs. Edwards celebrated her 97th birthday recently with a small party at her daughter’s home nearby. She says that after her ordeal, she’s “not 100 percent but getting there” and says her daughter was such a great help to her during her journey. Both were impressed with Dr. McDonald, who, coincidentally, also hails from Jamaica. “She made me feel so comfortable and she explained everything so well – the ‘what, the how and the why’ – so I wasn’t afraid at all,” says Mrs. Edwards.

Dr. McDonald credits her patient with being so “compliant, resilient and strong,” and not being afraid of undergoing treatment. “Most people her age probably couldn’t handle it but she handled everything so well,” she says. “She really inspired a lot of people on her care team here at Lynn Cancer Institute. And she’s just such a sweet person.”

Dr. McDonald reminds women to get their annual mammograms, because early detection of breast cancer leads to better outcomes. For older women who wonder whether or not to discontinue mammography, she suggests talking to your doctors. “Don’t let your age discourage you,” she advises. “If a 96-year-old can be saved by a mammogram, so can you.”

Healthcare that Cares

With internationally renowned centers of excellence, 13 hospitals, more than 23,000 employees, 4,000 physicians and 100 outpatient centers, urgent care facilities and physician practices spanning across Miami-Dade, Monroe, Broward and Palm Beach counties, Baptist Health is an anchor institution of the South Florida communities we serve.