For nearly three decades, Denise Logsdon's dream of a college diploma has been at war with the realities of marriage, motherhood, and medical problems.

After graduating from Cardinal O'Hara High School in 1985, Logsdon was cruising toward a degree in political science at Vanderbilt University when she left after 21/2 years for a brief marriage to a military man that produced her now-22-year-old son, Nicholas.

When Nicholas was 11, Logsdon was on the brink of going back to school when her son shattered his femur in a life-threatening playground accident - requiring four surgeries and a mother's constant love and attention.

But seventeen months ago, the now-45-year-old Springfield woman hurled herself into both academics and student life at Delaware County Community College. She won election as student body president, was a vice president of Phi Theta Kappa honor society, organized classmates to lobby in Harrisburg for higher education funding, earned a 3.8 grade-point average, and won a scholarship to the University of Pennsylvania.

And this time she vowed nothing would stop her - not even when a doctor told her during a routine physical six weeks ago that a lump on her neck was Stage 3 thyroid cancer.

"I told the doctor, 'Whatever needs to be done, I have to walk on that stage May 23. It's been 25 years working to get there,' " she recalled, looking commencement-ready in a black sheath dress recently.

Not only did she pick up an associate degree in ceremonies at Villanova University on Wednesday, she was given the Outstanding Student Award, the equivalent of being named valedictorian.

And this fall she plans on fulfilling her ultimate goal - to finish her long-delayed education on Penn's Ivy League campus.

Logsdon's diagnosis was upsetting to her many friends and teachers, said Susan Scalzi, her adviser in Phi Theta Kappa, but "she's going to push forward."

For many years in Logsdon's life, one step forward was usually followed by one step back.

A top student at O'Hara, she was the first in her family to attend college and received scholarships from Princeton, Duke, and Georgetown, but decided on Vanderbilt after her father asked, "Which one is free?" But at 18, she now realizes, she wasn't ready to go far away to study.

"I was a fish out of water," Logsdon said. "It was the first time I was away, I was young, and I couldn't balance everything."

She eventually started a successful career in commission ad sales for local newspapers even as she remarried and found herself raising three stepchildren in addition to her son. "In the back of my mind I always wanted to go back to school, but once you have a job and kids to take care of, that takes priority," she said.

Her outlook changed in 2008 when the shrinking of the newspaper industry persuaded her to accept a buyout from her job. (Her husband was also laid off at roughly the same time, although he eventually found a job in sales with a solar firm.) Logsdon said she knew it would be hard to launch a second career without a degree.

With her two oldest children enrolled at community college, Logsdon took the plunge in January 2012.

"There's access to education for everyone at community college - all income levels, all stages of life," she said.

Logsdon's most anxious moment in class may have come on Day One. "The first day, I walked into my first class in 25 years and Nicholas was in the class," she recalled. "His face was horrified."

Eventually, mother and son would study together, work as lab partners, and bond over college life. "We're best friends," Logsdon said, and the incident proved to be a kind of foreshadowing. She eventually became not only a campus leader but a surrogate mom to other students at DCCC.

"She's been kind of a mentor to me, a second mother," said a friend and classmate, 22-year-old Meghan Flinn of Aston. "She's always caring and always puts herself out there for others."

In addition to her classes, Logsdon found time to serve as student body president and organize campus activities such as a conference for Phi Theta Kappa and a Wiffle ball game for breast cancer research.

"Denise is a high-energy, extremely motivated, very caring person about the institution and her fellow students," said Virginia Carter, the DCCC provost.

Logsdon was supposed to begin a summer semester in University City this week - but that was before the bad news from her physical.

"Nobody prepares for this," she said. "I thought, 'Thyroid cancer - OK, now what happens?' " On April 7, Logsdon underwent seven hours of surgery to remove her thyroid and some lymph nodes, then iodine radiation therapy to kill the remaining cancer cells. Her doctors told her the cancer is "under arrest" - not in remission but not spreading.

The surgery and treatment left her with a barely visible scar on her neck and numbness on the right side of her head, neck, and shoulders, but "it doesn't affect my daily life," she said. Indeed, she was able to complete almost all of her DCCC classes despite the medical ordeal.

Now, she is determined to arrive at Penn in the fall, earn a public policy degree in 2015, and then get a master's and doctorate. Eventually, she would like to work in an area such as social entrepreneurship.

"I can't promise I'll meet that because of the unknown of being sick," Logsdon said. "But in my head I'm going to focus on proceeding as if I can, until I can't."

Contact Kathy Boccella at kboccella@phillynews.com, 610-313-8123 or follow #kathyboccella on Twitter.