Skip Navigation

UMGC Global Media Center
LeTonya Butler, Three-time Cancer Survivor, Did Not Let Illness Derail Her Ambitions

Editor's Note: This profile is part of a series that features the stories of more than a dozen graduates whose outstanding journeys have culminated in a UMGC degree.

Alex Kasten
By Alex Kasten
  • Commencement |
  • News

From an early age, Latonya Butler said she always wanted to know about policing. 

“As a child, I would run behind police officers and find out what's going on in the crime area,” she said. “As I got older and saw the negative effects of drugs, crime and guns, I decided I wanted to make a difference by helping others through their grief and trauma.”

Butler is graduating from University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC) with a master’s degree in transformational leadership with additional coursework in criminal justice. But the journey wasn’t a straightforward one. En route to her degree, she had to beat cancer—not once, not twice, but three times.

During her early career in the Army, where she completed four years active duty and two with the reserves, Butler served as a signal officer. Around 2007, she got a job at a youth detention center, then worked at a homeless shelter, and she is now a case manager with a drug rehabilitation center in St. Mary’s County, Maryland.

Along the way, she struggled with health issues. Then a mammogram revealed cancer. Doctors told her she had 90 days to live unless she underwent treatment.

“I was a 33-year-old facing Stage 3 breast cancer and an immediate double mastectomy,” she said. “My first response was, ‘No way.’ I wanted to walk away.”

After some persuading by her mother and the medical team, Butler had surgery and, remarkably, later that year began classes toward a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at UMGC. She pushed through the physical and emotional toll taken by cancer treatment—radiation, chemotherapy, hair loss, fatigue, setbacks—while raising children, working and going to school.

“I’m not going backwards,” she told herself. “I need to continue to go forward and do whatever it takes to continue to go to school.” 

During her third year into the bachelor’s degree coursework, cancer struck again. Doctors found a tumor on her kidney. She underwent radiation again and, after 120 days, the tumor was gone. “I got to go to graduation, and it was one of the happiest days of my life because I had completed something and I was so exhausted,” she said.

Butler started sharing her story with other cancer patients. Making a difference in their lives motivated her to continue with her education. She returned to UMGC to pursue a master’s degree.

Back in school—again juggling work and family—she was diagnosed with cancer for a third time. The diagnosis this time was uterine cancer. After a hysterectomy and a recovery period, and with the support of family and work colleagues, Butler completed her master’s program. 

“I did back flips because I am able to walk across the stage to get my degree,” she said. “Not only am I a three-time cancer survivor, but also the first out of all my cousins, uncles and aunts of both sides of my family to graduate college.”

A year ago, on the cusp of a milestone birthday, Butler reflected on her experience.

“When I approached 40, I said, ‘God, if you can allow me to see five generations of life and enjoy my grandchildren and my children, that would be so much more to me than anything you know.’”

Three days after her birthday, when she went for tests, she learned that she was cancer free.

With time, Butler’s interest in crime has evolved into a passion for counseling, and she now has set her sights on a certificate in human services so she can become more involved helping others through grief and trauma. Her ultimate goal? To open a practice of her own.