BYU students coping with cancer

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Half of all men and one third of all women will develop cancer in their lifetime according to the American Cancer Society website, and BYU students are no exception.

Andrew Sewell, a sophomore at BYU, was diagnosed with leukemia at the age of 12. He and his family first noticed something was wrong when he began bruising easily.

“I was preparing for Christmas with my younger siblings when I had to go into the doctor to run some tests to check if I had cancer,” Sewell said. “My parents told me the news that I was sick with cancer. It was shocking at first, and I didn’t understand how I could have had it when I felt so healthy and strong.”

Robin Tourtillott holds a picture of her father who passed away from cancer
Robin Tourtillott holds a picture of her father who passed away from cancer.

Sewell decided to have a positive outlook upon hearing the news.

I was just happy to still be alive, and I was always excited to see what came next,” Sewell said. “I believe the support and love of family and friends ultimately helped me to make it through this experience.” 

Keighley Richardson, who is studying athletic training, went through many hardships when her brother, father and mother were diagnosed with cancer.

Richardson was eight years old when her father was diagnosed with cancer.

“When my dad had cancer I was very young and didn’t know much of what was going on and what cancer meant,” Richardson said.

Six years later, Richardson would experience another hardship when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I knew what was going on with my mom since I was older,” Richardson said. “My mother had to go through chemotherapy, surgeries and different treatments. When my mother was sick it shook the whole family.”  

Richardson’s father has been in cancer remission for 10 years, her brother is currently in remission, and her mother recently hit her five-year mark of being breast cancer free.

Richardson’s experience dealing with loved ones with cancer inspired her to volunteer at Camp Kesem, a camp designed to provide assistance and support to children and teenagers whose parents have cancer.

Camp Kesem is a private organization that receives BYU student volunteers who assist planning a week of activities.

Richardson inspires others to never give up and to provide love and encouragement for a family member with cancer.

“I would tell someone experiencing cancer, or a loved one with cancer, to never give up hope,” Richardson said. “Just know there are people who know what you are going through and are there to help you that you can lean on.” 

The possibility of losing someone important to cancer has become a reality for some students at BYU.

Bree Baxter, a graduate of BYU in English, is losing her mother to a three-year battle with cancer.

Baxter first learned that her mother had cancer before starting her senior year at BYU.

“I was in denial a lot a first,” Baxter said. “Over time, though, I had time to accept what was going on and accept that this was now how my family life was going to be.

Baxter’s mother’s health has worsened over the past three years as she has lost all control of motor skills such as walking, talking, using her hands and eating due to a cancer side effect caused by cerebellar degeneration.  

During this difficult time, Baxter and her family have relied on their faith.

“We’ve had a lot of time to deal with the inevitability of her death, and with the gospel in our lives we are lucky enough to have great faith in how life will be after death,” Baxter said.

Baxter’s experience has enabled her to help others cope with losing a loved one to cancer.

“My advice would be to let yourself go through any stage of grief you need — if you’re angry, let yourself be angry,” Baxter said. “If you’re in denial, let yourself be in denial, but let it pass as well. Also, never forget the eternal perspective of things.”

For some BYU students, losing a loved one to cancer has already taken place, and are they are left with a void in their lives.

Robin Tourtillott, a freshman majoring in math education, lost her father to cancer 10 months ago.  

Tourtillott’s father was first diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in 2005. At first, Tourtillott didn’t know how serious her father’s cancer would be. 

“At first my family and I didn’t think it was a big deal,” Tourtillott said. “My dad was such a strong person and didn’t show all the pain he was going through and kept working. I didn’t think much of it because life was going on as it was supposed to.”

Tourtillott said that as her father’s cancer worsened, her family would drop everything they were doing to be there for him.

“Every time something would happen, when we thought this would be it, siblings would travel home no matter where they were to be with my dad,” Tourtillott said. “We stayed close.”

Tourtillott’s father passed away in April 2012 after a seven-year battle with cancer.

After her father’s passing, Tourtillott relied on her faith to get her through losing her father.

“I’m glad I have the Church in my life,” Tourtillott said. “It gives me the perspective that he did what he was supposed to here on Earth and that he’s in a better place and not hurting anymore.”

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