His doctoral degree was a tough act to follow
Editor’s note: Reprinted from the February 2021 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version, click here.
By Ashlee Larrison
Resilience, mindfulness and mental toughness.
That was the topic of the dissertation Dr. David Butler successfully defended for his Ph.D. in Performance Psychology from the College of Doctoral Studies at Grand Canyon University. But for Butler, those words represented so much more, serving as active descriptors of the author himself and the journey he took to complete his doctorate.
When Butler began the program in 2013, he had no idea how much of that mentality he would need to not only receive his degree but make it through all the challenges of the next seven years.
Shortly after beginning his program, Butler started his own consulting firm, The Vector Group International, which required him to balance his schoolwork and his responsibilities as a CEO.
Three years into his doctorate, Butler’s resilience was tested in a way that he never could have expected. After a visit with his doctor, Butler was advised to get his affairs in order: He was diagnosed with Stage 4 prostate cancer.
But Butler wouldn’t let it keep him down. He continued his studies while undergoing treatments for cancer, taking only short breaks to recover from surgeries.
After a positive response to treatments, the cancer was in remission. But he wasn’t out of the woods yet – in 2018, test results confirme that it had returned. He again was in Stage 4.
And then the situation got even more dire.
During his second round of treatments, he started to experience complications in his heart valve, leading to open heart surgery in 2019. Then the next year he had another surgery, to replace a hip.
“Stage 4 means that it had gone to my lymph nodes, so that means it could just reappear at any time,” he said. “Every time I’d go and take a test, you know your heart is beating because you’re waiting for the marker to go in the wrong direction.”
But each of the complications he experienced allowed him to further challenge his own resilience and mental toughness.
“It’s a story of perseverance, a story of faith, it’s a story of being in a system at GCU that was really supportive,” he said. “I had all these things as a result of all this treatment. I couldn’t whine very much because, basically, my research was about having to get through such a difficult period.”
Over the years, completing assignments from a hospital bed became normal. Loved ones never doubted Butler’s drive and dedication to the task but found themselves wondering if it had become too much.
“We started with a three-year plan,” said his wife, Vicki. “Then when it went to year five it was a little discouraging. Year six was like, ‘Oh my gosh, are you really still doing this?’ Year seven I was like, ‘You have to finish this. No matter what, you just have to keep going on it,’ because he had put in so much prep work and time.
“I knew that he would finish.”
Because of the nature of his health, completing his program became a longer process than he and his family expected. The resilience that he displayed throughout the process left some in his committee equally impressed and inspired.
“Watching what he was going through, which you have to be very resilient for that, with the cancer coming back and forth, the surgeries and all that stuff throughout the program, it was interesting as a chair – it’s amazing,” said Dr. Reginald Kimball, one of Butler’s dissertation chairs.
“David wasn’t doing this for himself. He knew that there was a higher calling, so to speak. It wasn’t about him putting a couple of letters in front of his name.”
When Butler had to slow down his studies to keep up with his fluctuating health, or even when he ran into complications collecting data for his dissertation because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kimball offered the support he needed to keep going. It established a friendship between the two that has resulted in continued communication, even past Butler’s August completion of his program.
“I think he made me a better chair,” Kimball said. “He’s made me a better person through the work that he did.”
The feeling is mutual, said Butler, who largely credited the support of his committee for helping him complete his degree.
“I can’t express enough how important it was for me to be transparent with my chair and to trust him and to listen to his advice,” Butler said. “The doctoral journey is not like anything most people have ever done, and so it’s important to go into the process with palms open.”
Butler again has beaten the odds and is in remission from his cancer. The avid “Star Trek” fan and father of three continues to use his story to inspire others while also refusing to take even a second of time for granted.
“Don’t allow your setbacks to cause you to sit back,” he said.
And no one personifies that notion better than Butler himself.
Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].