Scholarship lifts up cancer survivors, siblings

Austin Thacker, who is in his fifth year of cancer remission, is a junior at Grand Canyon University who has an "adventurous heart." For the third year, he is a recipient of the John W. Luttrell Scholarship, awarded by GCU community partner Children's Cancer Network.

By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau

Anjelica Carden couldn’t focus. Not fully.

The Northern Arizona University freshman's heart was back at home in Phoenix with her family, particularly with her little brother, Angel.

GCU online student Anjelica Carden gave up a full-tuition scholarship to Northern Arizona University so she could be closer to family, including her brother, Angel, a pediatric cancer survivor.

Angel was just 8 years old when he came home from a game on the baseball field and decided to rest on the couch. When his mom checked up on him and he couldn’t move or speak, she was alarmed.

After a trip to the ER, things quickly escalated: A mass on his brain, a 7-hour surgery, learning to walk and talk again, a year of cancer treatments.

While this was Angel’s cancer journey, his whole family walked beside him, including Anjelica, who would land a full-tuition Lumberjack Scholarship to NAU.

But she gave it all up.

“I decided to come back because I wanted to be there with them,” said Anjelica, who would make the two-plus hour trip back home almost every weekend to support her brother. “I was the oldest of my siblings. I wanted to help (my family) with the other kids.”

Anjelica transferred to Gateway Community College and, since January, has been taking classes online at Grand Canyon University, where she’s majoring in Sports Management.

Taking classes online makes it easier for her to be with her family and now 10-year-old brother, who is in remission.

Award recipients gather for the scholarship ceremony in 2019. This year, the event will be virtual.

What also will make it easier for Anjelica to reach her academic goals is a scholarship from Children’s Cancer Network (CCN), one of GCU’s longtime community partners.

The Cardens have long been supported by the organization, which also chose Angel as this year’s honorary race starter for its Run to Fight Children’s Cancer on Oct. 24 -- a onetime on-campus event started by the GCU Foundation in 2011 that was handed over to CCN two years ago.

Anjelica is one of 54 students receiving the John W. Luttrell Scholarship this year. Six of those recipients will be attending GCU -- Anjelica, Ben Gokee, Jonathan Gary, Austin Thacker, Jorge Peralta and Lillian Martin.

They will be honored during a virtual scholarship ceremony at 5 p.m. Saturday. (Click here for information on how to watch the ceremony.)

The scholarships go to children’s cancer survivors, their siblings or parents.

Children’s Cancer Network established the scholarship in 2005 in honor of CCN President Steve Luttrell’s father, who passed away from a brain tumor.

Children's Cancer Network co-founders Patti and Steve Luttrell speak with GCU TV at a past Run to Fight Night at men's basketball.

“He kept thinking, my gosh, how hard it was for him. He couldn’t imagine children going through that,” said Steve’s wife Patti, CCN’s Executive Director and a former full-time GCU nursing faculty member.

When a family takes on cancer, said Patti, it consumes everything, including a family's finances and their ability to pay for college.

“Education is quite an investment. It’s SO wonderful (for these families) to be able to look beyond cancer and to their future,” she said.

GCU is proud to be part of that future.

"GCU has an opportunity to partner with Children’s Cancer Network in transforming that diagnosis into a legacy of survivorship, of reaching beyond those words 'your child has cancer' into a future of hope and achievement," said University Relations Manager Debbie Accomazzo.

Children’s Cancer Network has been part of scholarship recipient Ben Gokee’s journey for some time.

Ben’s little brother, Cooper, was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2011, and he was named the race starter -- the one chosen to sound the horn that starts the race -- for the third Run to Fight Children’s Cancer at GCU in 2013.

“From the beginning, Children’s Cancer Network has been a really big part of our lives,” said Ben, whose family received gas cards so the Gokees could pay for gas to get to Cooper’s treatments, as well as food cards to help with the finances that cancer tends to chew up.

Ben Gokee, another Children's Cancer Network scholarship recipient, is studying public health at GCU.

He especially appreciated how he, as a sibling of someone with cancer, was not forgotten.

“The siblings are often overlooked,” he said. “I was feeling a little bit set aside.”

And he’s still getting that support with the John W. Luttrell Scholarship, the second year he will receive it.

Ben, a sophomore, just changed his major from nursing to public health. His sister comes from the foster care system, and Ben said he has seen how some communities aren’t being taken care of when it comes to health. He wants to advocate for low-income families.

His brother is in remission and is now 16 years old.

“His whole plan is to follow me to GCU,” Ben said with a laugh.

Tucson, Ariz., resident Austin Thacker was diagnosed with Stage 4 non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma as an eighth grader.

“I had it in my head, my spine, my ribs, my kidneys,” Austin said. “A mass the size of a grapefruit was wrapped around a main artery to my heart.”

He fought through seven surgeries, chemotherapy, total body radiation, concentrated radiation and a spinal tap. And when the cancer returned and doctors told him he had a slim chance of survival, he had a bone marrow transplant.

He has been cancer-free for five years.

He’s busy this summer as a camp counselor to 5- to 11-year-olds in Ohio. He’s also the author of a novel, “My Hand Mitten,” published his senior year of high school through Make-A-Wish. He’s a cross-country cyclist, too, riding in the 100-mile El Tour de Tucson in 2019.

And, of course, he’s a GCU student and John W. Luttrell Scholarship recipient for the third year.

He first heard about Children’s Cancer Network during appointments to his oncologist.

“My family has never been very rich. … I’m actually the first to go to college in my family. I was looking to find money in any direction," he said, adding this about CCN: "What a blessing they’ve been.”

Austin is a junior this year who is majoring in psychology, though he isn’t quite sure where the future might lead.

“After beating cancer, it’s harder to look at a future because you’re so stuck in the past and absorbing the fact you do have a future,” he said.

But he knows a few things: Whatever he does will not involve math (“I’ve had quite a kerfuffle with math,” he said) and will “feed my adventurous heart.”

But most of all, “My main criteria is to be a servant … and love on everyone as much as I can – that’s what we’re made to do and that’s what we’re called to do,” said Austin, who sees psychology as a pathway to accomplish that goal. “ … It would be an honor to meet strangers and help them through life.”

Anjelica (upper right) is close to her family, especially brother Angel (at bottom of photo).

As for Anjelica, she dreams of one day working for an organization such as the Arizona Diamondbacks, which honors cancer-fighting families during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. She has volunteered for the sports organization for a while and would love to work for its Community Affairs Department.

She wants to go from supporting her family to supporting her community, much like GCU does.

As Anjelica, Ben and Austin speak about their futures -- all of them with a passion not just for a degree but for helping others -- Accomazzo said it's obvious they were already Lopes well before they registered for their first class at GCU.

Children’s Cancer Network has supported community, too – being there for families during the most difficult parts of life. The organization is as busy as ever, even through the pandemic, moving most of its programs online.

Patti said one of the ways the organization has been serving families during the pandemic is with something called Drive-Thru Distractions. Once a month, families drive through to pick up food cards, toiletries and “distractions,” or age-appropriate toys for children.

Also, CCN’s Run to Fight Children’s Cancer moved off campus for the first time this year. Originally slated for April at Salt River Fields in Scottsdale, it now will be a virtual event on Oct. 24. Participants will be sent their T-shirts, bib and medal but will complete their 5K or 10K wherever they happen to be.

It has been a decade of partnership and advocacy between CCN and GCU, ever since that first Run to Fight in 2011.

"It feels as if we're entering an entirely new chapter with Steve and Patti and CCN," Accomazzo said. "We've only just begun to harness the passion of these children and families by helping them channel a renewed purpose in life."

When Patti thinks of that inaugural year of Run to Fight at GCU and the children who have grown into young adults and are now in college, “That’s a sign of hope,” she said. “We’re only too thrilled to be part of their journey.”

GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-7901.


Related content:

GCU Today: Run to Fight Night marks new direction for race

GCU Today: Families stand strong at Run to Fight Night


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