Cancer Survivor Helps Others Stay in School
Think of the word ‘cancer’, and I bet for many of you the first words that come to mind aren’t very positive.
James Kilcrease, who graduated this last Saturday from New Mexico State University with his Ph.D., had every reason think negatively after his cancer diagnosis two years ago, but he didn’t let it happen.
He’s leaving NMSU this Christmas season with his health, his degree and, with a little help, a legacy.
His story starts in summer 2011, when James was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He described to me on the Department of Health radio show, ‘Prescription for Health’ last week the three day odyssey that had him going to the doctor one day, getting test results the next, and having surgery the following morning.
According to the University of New Mexico Cancer center, testicular cancers are highly treatable and usually curable types of cancer.
They’re also relatively rare, with only a handful of cases reported statewide every year, but testicular cancer targets men between the ages of 15 to 35 years old. In James’ case, that diagnosis came when he was just weeks away from completing his qualifying exam for his Ph.D. candidacy.
“When something like cancer comes along it can really knock you back, and it’s not so much a hammer as it is a freight train,” James said.
It brought out in James a drive and a fight he says he never thought possible.
After surgery, he stayed in graduate school while undergoing intense chemotherapy. He had weeks where he was in the hospital receiving treatments lasting up to nine hours a day, five days a week.
And he did it while working in the hospital from his laptop, on his class work, his dissertation, even for his department’s graduate student organization, where he continued to serve as president, all while experiencing excruciating radiation treatments.
“I didn’t let myself get wrapped up in how bad it was,” James said. “I had to keep focused on everything else and keep as busy as I could.”
But he couldn’t help but notice not everyone could say the same.
“As I was sitting in those chairs in the hospital, day in and day out, you see a lot of people around you, and some of them you watch as they slowly lose hope and slowly lose that drive.”
And he learned even when you win the fight, cancer free doesn’t mean feeling care free.
“It’s a physical and mental battle,” he said, describing what it means to slowly start to get your strength back just as you’re starting to see the medical bills that came with the cure.
“[The bills] make the day to day life so much more stressful.”
He also had the bills that come with going to college. As his medical bills approached six figures, he looked for scholarship options for cancer survivors, and found almost nothing. A few for undergraduates, a couple more for graduate students – but only under age 25.
So with help from NMSU and many donors, James is this close to creating the Aggie Cancer Survivor Scholarship, a scholarship for graduate students who have battled cancer and are pushing forward to pursue a graduate degree.
“This isn’t just about money, the scholarship is also a way to say to someone, ‘Good job. You beat this’ and allow them to pursue their goals in life,” said James.
The scholarship is just $2200 away from the $10,000 needed to activate it so it starts paying out to students. Initially, the payouts will be only a few hundred dollars, but the scholarship is an endowment which will continue to solicit donors and gather interest in a bank.
James hopes to see the scholarship grow to provide not just money for books, but tuition, perhaps one day, even enough to provide a worthy student a free ride to a Ph.D.
For now, Dr. James Kilcrease is on to the next challenge, knowing with what he’s accomplished these last two years, he can do anything.
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