06/05/2014 05:00 EDT | Updated 06/16/2017 01:00 EDT

First Nation woman earns doctorate after battle with brain tumour

Sarah Pash is not a quitter, but a few years ago she came close to giving up.

Pash started her doctoral program nine years ago, specializing in First Nations education at Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Ont.

But in her fifth year, unexplained chronic pain — and the medication she was taking for it — made her unable to concentrate on her studies. She had to drop her courses.

For someone who describes herself as "very independent," it was hard to let go. 

- AUDIO | Sarah Pash's interview in Cree on CBC's Eyou Dipajimoon

"It was a real moment of surrender to what was going on in my life," she said. "I had no control over my illness or the way it was affecting me."

"I have a hard time asking for help…. But at that moment I realized I can't do this alone," Pash said, her voice cracking with emotion. "I can't get through any of this alone."

That was a turning point for Pash, who is from the Cree Nation of Chisasibi in northern Quebec.

"We don't realize how much support there is around us and how much love is around us, and I think all we have to do is allow ourselves to accept it and depend on it," she said.

"When we are able do that, we realize that we can get through anything, no matter what.”

And that's what she did.

About a year and a half ago, she was diagnosed with a brain tumour about the size of a golf ball. As scary as that was for her and for her family, Sarah Pash said it was also a relief to finally know what had been causing her unbearable pain.

In January of this year, Pash re-registered for her PhD program and dusted off her dissertation.

"I was able to get ready for my final exam and did my final draft of my dissertation, and got ready for graduation, and that was it," she said.

Her father, Steven Pash, said perseverance has always been a big part of his daughter's personality, as is sharing her love of life with everyone around her.

He said the Cree community pulled together to support his daughter through her illness, with people of all faiths — both traditional Cree spirituality and Christian denominations — praying for her.

"She always shared her love with her family and friends and everyone, and that's what has carried her so far," he said.

Sarah Pash graduated with her Doctorate of Philosophy on May 31 in Thunder Bay. She currently lives with her husband and four children in Oujé-Bougoumou.