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Today's word on journalism

Monday, January 29, 2007

Words as weapons:

"When he had a pen in his hand it was like giving a kid a machine gun."

--Peter Hall, theater director, on "Angry Young Man" playwright John Osborne (1929-1994)

Student with cancer says 'so much good' has happened through his worst trial

By Kathryn Kemp

December 4, 2006 | It’s the kind of story that TV movies are made of, like a Hallmark special that has to be watched with a box of Kleenex. It’s a storyline we see all the time: A man’s biggest challenge becomes his greatest blessing. For a Utah State University student named Phil, that blessing came because of a 9-year-old girl.

Phil was an average Utah guy. He grew up like any other kid, average family, average life. He played sports in high school, and had big plans for college. But in the summer of 2002, everything changed when he learned he had a brain tumor.

“This just killed me. Absolutely killed me,” he said.

Small signs of a problem began appearing before he left on his two-year mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in 1999. He was working construction with his uncle when one day while he was cutting tile he suddenly fell onto the saw and rolled to the side. He felt dizzy, but thought it was just heat stroke from a hike. He went home early and slept for 16 hours. A year later, while on his mission, he collapsed again. And again, six months after that. Still, he brushed it off, thinking he was just tired.

In the summer of 2002, several months after returning from his mission, he began working out in preparation for football season at Dixie State College, where he would be a kicker and a linebacker. During that time, he was collapsing on a regular basis, and had dizzy spells every day. The team trainer insisted he go see a doctor, so he did.

After an MRI test, Phil was asked to wait because the results would be back that day, which was unusual because it would usually take about a week, he said. When the doctor came into the room with the results, he solemnly told Phil, “This is the first time I’ve ever had a radiologist hand-deliver these results.” That isn’t a good sign, Phil thought.

The doctor went on to tell Phil that he had a tumor on a cranial nerve on the outside of his brain, the nerve that affects balance and equilibrium. Phil was shocked and confused as he listened to the doctor telling him about his options on what needed to be done, and insisted the tumor needed to be taken care of now.

Phil interrupted and asked for a few minutes alone.

“I just crouched down, and I just started to bawl,” he said. He thought back to where he served his mission in Portland, Ore. The LDS church sent a lot of sick missionaries to Portland back then because of the high-quality medical facilities there. Over his two years of service, five of his companions had cancer. Phil had seen what things were like for cancer patients. One of them had died. He remembered all of them, and thought, “How could this happen to me?”

From then on, Phil let his doctors advise him on what was best. More tests found another tumor on the cochlea in his ear. This one, microscopic and benign, had been causing his dizzy spells. This tumor was a blessing in disguise because it was the dizzy spells that led to that first discovery of the more serious tumor on his brain. But Phil didn’t feel lucky or blessed.

“I was really, really depressed,” he said. He was asking all of the questions. “Why me?” “Why is God doing this?” “Why am I being punished?”

Phil went to the University of Utah for his treatments. The Huntsman Cancer Institute hadn’t been built yet. He was treated with a new procedure that was still in its testing stages. Phil was, in fact, one of the first humans researchers had used it on. Today it is in its final stages of being approved and published by the FDA.

For the procedure, doctors made an incision in the roof of his mouth and behind his ear and using catheters—hollow, flexible tubes—they injected chemicals to capsulate the tumor.

Similar to what happens with scar tissue, the body should then naturally get rid of it. Following the surgery, he received treatments similar to chemotherapy to get rid of any remnants of the tumor. The procedure worked well because they found the tumor early, Phil said.

After two weeks of treatment Phil was given the choice of going to a recovery clinic with elderly people, or one with children. He said he didn’t care.

“At this point, I didn’t care about anything,” he said. So it was his mother who chose to send him to St. Mark’s Rehabilitation Center in Boise, Idaho, to be with the kids. He was 22, and the next oldest person was 14. Still feeling bitter, he planned on being miserable, but instead his experience there changed his life.

At the center every patient had their own room. There was also a large activity room with windows on one side, and a view of the high school across the street. Every day, the patients were required to go to that activity room, and Phil hated it. He preferred to be alone so he could sulk and feel sorry for himself. He talked as little as possible to the doctors, nodding his head yes or no in response to their questions. He talked even less to the nurses. His first three days at the clinic all he did was sit in a La-Z-Boy in front of the window for hours and watch the high school football team practice.

There were a lot of children there, Phil said. “It’s funny because we were all going through cancer so nobody had hair.” But the connection he felt with the children ended there. Until the day he was approached by one of them.

He noticed the 9-year-old girl was always staring at him. It made him uncomfortable, so he tried to ignore her, but one day she walked up, stood within four feet of him, and just watched him. After a moment she began asking questions. She asked what he was looking at, and why he never talked to anyone, not even the nurses. She liked the nurses, they were her friends.

“Really?” he asked sarcastically, “Well maybe you should go talk to them.”

“No, I’m talking to you,” she answered. Phil laughed to himself as he remembered that moment. But at the time he was annoyed and just wanted her to go away. But then she asked a question that began a conversation he will never forget.

“How come you’re so sad?” she asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“You’re sad.”

“How do you know I’m sad? How do you know I just don’t like to talk?”

“I can tell…I can tell because you’re bald and that means you had cancer.” She paused.

“I used to be sad, too.” Phil explained she was being treated for leukemia.

“Are you gonna die?” she asked him.

“I don’t think so,” he answered.

“Well, I’m gonna die.”

“How do you know that?” he asked in surprise.

“That’s what the doctor said…but it’s OK.”

“Why is it OK?”

She looked at Phil solemnly and said, “Because that’s what Jesus told me.”

“So you pray?” he asked.

“No, I talk to Him,” she said.

“Does He talk to you?”

Without hesitation she answered, “Yep!”

A little surprised and unsure of what to say, Phil asked, “What does he say?”

“He tells me it’s okay…that I’m gonna be fine.” She looked at him for a moment, and said, “He told me last night that you’ll be fine too.” And without another word she turned around and walked away.

Phil sat in stunned silence as she walked away, then started to cry. He didn’t sleep that night, even though the medication he was receiving usually made him sleep all the time. He couldn’t stop thinking about what she had told him. And he began to understand that he wasn’t a victim. He didn’t get cancer because God was punishing him.

Maybe he got cancer because he worked as painter and never wore a mask, or because he had lived near an airport and inhaled jet fumes, or because he worked at a test site and didn’t wear proper equipment. The point was, he realized, it wasn’t anyone’s fault, he wasn’t a victim, it’s just something that happened.

The next day in the activity room, he motioned the little girl over and asked what Jesus had told her about him last night.

“We didn’t talk about you,” she said. He laughed, and asked her what she liked to do, and for the rest of the afternoon, they played checkers.

“From that day on, this little girl was like my very best friend,” he said. During his five weeks at the facility, Phil and the little girl, Miranda, were together every day. His entire outlook on his situation and life in general changed. From then on, he had a positive attitude. Even his doctors told him he would not have recovered so well if he hadn’t had a good attitude.

Miranda recovered as well. She just turned 13 years old and lives in Washington. She and Phil, who is now 26, are still best friends.

Phil doesn’t know why he was blessed with such a unique experience, but says he has been able to do a lot of great things with his story. He is now a patient advocate for cancer patients, working specifically with teenagers. Most of the time he just tries to be their friend, the way Miranda was for him.

“There is no advice you can give to somebody who has cancer, because nobody knows what they’re going through…not even other cancer patients. It’s different for everybody,” he said. You can’t always tell someone that they are going to be okay, he said, because some won’t. He recalled working with a 14-year-old boy who would likely die from a tumor on his pancreas. He couldn’t tell him he would be fine. What is most important, he said, is that he is their friend now, and he helps them keep a good attitude.

Other good things have come to Phil as well. He still has the microscopic tumor that was on his cochlea, and it made him a perfect candidate for research being done at the University of Nevada. Four times a year he travels to Reno to participate in the research. Because he is helping with this research, every medical bill is paid for. This came at a time when Phil thought he would have to quit school and work for three years to pay the debt he had accumulated. The researchers paid for his future expenses, but also backtracked and paid three-fourths of what he still had to pay.

“I have it as good as I possibly could and still have that problem,” he said.

He still struggles with people who don’t understand, or who are uncomfortable with cancer. Some people are afraid to touch him, or go near him.

His father once worked with a man who was afraid of Phil. One day, while Phil was visiting his father, he approached the man, who took a step back. Phil took a step forward, and the man took another step back. He kept walking backwards, until Phil finally grabbed him, hugged him, and said, “Oh! Now you’ve got it too!”

And that’s how he handles it. He has fun with it. Joking is the easiest way for him to deal with it, he says. It may not always be the most effective, or appropriate, but it’s easy and it works. And it helps him keep his good attitude.

Phil has learned a lot from his experiences over the last four years. He says he has been very blessed. But he doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand and think that he is happy he had cancer.

“It sucks!” he said. “It’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to me. But through that bad thing, so much good has happened to me.”

Now most of his problems are just like those of the average college student. Phil is still in school, now a senior at USU. He will graduate in May 2007 and go on to medical school.

There are always small reminders of the cancer; for example, he always has fairly short hair because he has to shave his head every three months when he gets monitored. Still, things are going well for him, and he says it all goes back to when a young girl gave him the perspective and the courage to make it through anything.

“Everything good that has happened since, I attribute to that little 9-year-old,” he said. “I am a 100 percent different person than I was four years ago.”

Phil likes to tell his story. He has shared it at LDS firesides, National Cancer Society events, and more. He knows his story, unique as it was, can help others who are suffering with cancer. What he doesn’t like, is being in the spotlight because of it. He never uses his last name, even when he is speaking at an event, because he doesn’t want everyone to know him as “the cancer patient.” He knows it sounds strange, but that’s how he feels. He is still an average Utah guy—he just happened to have cancer, and learned to make the best of it.

It’s the kind of story that TV movies are made of…but for Phil it isn’t just a story. It’s real and it’s personal…Hallmark would never do it justice.



Copyright 1997-2005 Utah State University Department of Journalism & Communication, Logan UT 84322, (435) 797-1000
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