Cancer for College
by Craig Pollard, with Greg Flores
At age 15, I was obsessed with baseball and wanted to be the first baseman of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Sometimes reality intrudes on the best dreams.
As the doctor spoke, none of the typical thoughts of despair ran through my mind. I didn’t ask what Hodgkin’s was or how I would be treated. I didn’t even ask if I would die. The only thought that ran through my teenage mind was whether I’d be able to play baseball that season. When the doctor said “no,” I realized the severity of my situation.
Treatment included nine months of chemotherapy, three months of radiation, and surgery that resulted in the removal of my spleen, appendix, and several lymph nodes. All the while, I continued to play baseball and never took my eye off the goal.
After graduating on time with my class, I earned a merit scholarship to the University of Southern California and signed a national letter-of-intent with the Trojan baseball program. I had a girlfriend and was part of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity. Life was good. Unfortunately, cancer keeps its own schedule.
The first event in 1993 raised $500 and granted one scholarship. In 2010, there were more than 70 recipients and over $200,000 awarded.
At 19, the disease reared its ugly head again, and this time it meant business. I watched from a hospital bed as my friends, family, baseball career, and college experience all seemed to slip away. One night, I had a conversation with God and pleaded for my health. In return, I vowed to make a difference.
After a life-saving bone marrow transplant, my health returned and the life I had left behind resumed. I began my mission by serving as a counselor at Camp Ronald McDonald for Good Times, a special place for families with seriously ill children. The children were inspired by the fact that I was a survivor who was attending college. College gave them hope.
Families dealing with cancer use every last resource to fight the disease. Life savings and retirement plans are drained by co-payments, medications, and procedures. College dreams are forsaken in place of staying alive.
I wrote a business plan on a charity that would provide college scholarships to cancer survivors. We called it Cancer for College. I rallied 24 of my closest friends and family members for a golf tournament in 1993 and awarded our first scholarship of $500.
With friends, family, and fraternity brothers carrying the word to their network of contacts, Cancer for College made steady gains, but it was not until one of my more famous fraternity brothers got involved that things really took off.
Will Ferrell was a lowly pledge when we first met. Since then, he has established himself as an international superstar. Will participated in a handful of the early events before he took off for New York and landed on the set of Saturday Night Live. As Will’s fame grew, so too did his ability to participate. He saw firsthand the impact that Cancer for College had on the lives of kids with cancer. Will now serves as celebrity host for our fundraising events and calls Cancer for College “one of the purest charities he has ever seen.”
Part of being a survivor is being ready for new challenges. Like many cancer survivors, treatments left me with a compromised immune system. One day I went to work and began to feel the effects of what I thought was a cold. I quickly decided to go home for some rest, but I barely made it.
My temperature spiked, and my body ceased to function. My condition deteriorated quickly as doctors struggled to find the cause of the illness. An aggressive bacterium attacked my body, and my organs began shutting down.
Life is often about making trade-offs. The medication used to maintain my blood pressure and ultimately save my life had an alarming side effect. It caused my extremities to swell beyond recognition. Gangrene set in. Doctors suggested amputation.
Both of my feet were taken just above the ankle, but I refused to let it keep me down. At the 2006 Cancer for College golf tournament, only six months after losing my feet, I played golf in my prosthetics, and we granted our first scholarship to an amputee.
Cancer for College now stages multiple events around the country, including the golf tournament now in its 18th year. We have granted more than one million dollars to over 750 survivors. It also proves that you can overcome this disease and make a difference.
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To learn more about Cancer for College, visit www.cancerforcollege.org.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, January/February 2011.