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
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
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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
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
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.