Survivor Spotlight: Our Perpetual Scholarship Recipients 2013

“Truly an inspiration….  notably stands out amongst peers…. positive…. enthusiastic….  thrives on new experiences and challenges…. exemplary role model for other patients…. lifelong learner…. lives each day to the fullest….”

These are just some of the words used to describe our perpetual scholarship winners for this year.

Every fall, Cancer for College awards multiple scholarships, most of them being one-time awards. But a select few freshman recipients are granted a perpetual scholarship, meaning they will receive their scholarship once a year for four years, without the need to re-apply annually.

In this month’s Survivor Spotlight, we proudly introduce to you our perpetual scholarship winners for the 2013-14 school year. We’re so proud of them and excited as they begin their new college life!


Leticia Ayala

Art Institute of San Francisco

Just a couple of years ago, at age 15, Leticia was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Although she is still being closely followed by her oncologist, Leticia is happily beginning her first year at the Art Institute of San Francisco, studying fashion design.

“I have been going through treatment for two years and in that time I have seen the struggles of  many other patients,” writes Leticia. “I want to dedicate my time to helping fight cancer for those who I have seen struggle… I want to further my education so I can have a successful career and be able to contribute more to the fight against cancer.”


Drake Baker

California State University Northridge 

Drake was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma just two days before Christmas 2011, when he was 16 years old. He is in remission and starting his freshman year at Cal State Northridge, where he is studying film production.

“I had to stay strong for my family, especially for my little brother,” Drake shares. “It is my responsibility to teach him that no matter what life has thrown at him, nothing is impossible to overcome. During my chemotherapy, the doctors were not only surprised at how well I did, but how fast I beat it. After all the things I had gone through and had to undergo, I now look at it as a positive experience. Without that experience, I would have never seen life the way I do now.”


Alexandra Cunha

California State University San Marcos

Alexandra Cunha survived thyroid cancer at age 18 — an especially rare cancer for her age —  and is now in remission.  She is at Cal State San Marcos, working to become a nurse.

“Looking back at all the time I spent in hospitals there was something I noticed: the importance of proper health care from professionals,” says Alexandra. “Not in the sense of a correct diagnosis and treatment, but something deeper. I noticed the nurses, who not only aided in the recovery process but were there for patients emotionally. I realized what an enormous difference nurses make and that I wanted to touch people’s lives just like the nurses that looked after me did. Cancer has really given me a new purpose in life and that is to dedicate myself to serving the ill.”


Arianna Grelling

Whittier College

Arianna is in remission from Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia, which she was diagnosed with at 13. She attending Whittier College studying journalism and theater.

Arianna received the first “Dear Jack Foundation” scholarship.  The scholarship, started by Andrew McMahon, former lead singer of the band Jack’s Mannequin, benefits a cancer survivor pursuing an education in music or the arts.

“It’s funny how much one’s life can change in the blink of an eye,” shares Arianna. “You can go from being happy to sad, loving someone to hating their guts, being healthy to life-threateningly ill.”


Kendra Steinmetz


Kendra is cancer-free after being diagnosed at age 13 with Hepatoblastoma, an uncommon liver cancer. Kendra just started at UCLA where she will study film and television. She also has her own foundation, to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer research.

Kendra was moved to create her foundation after her dear friend, Jarren, lost his battle with Hepatoblastoma at just four years old. “Jarren inspired me to always strive to do the best that I can do in everything. He taught me that you can never stop fighting or trying hard for what you want. Sometimes you may fall, but you must always get back up and keep fighting…. I don’t want to see kids like him suffer any longer and I want to make a change in the world by helping to find a cure for cancer.”

Cancer for College is tremendously proud of all of our scholarship recipients, and we wish the very best for a happy, successful and healthy school year. Thank you to everyone who supports our work, making it possible to help these kids realize their dreams.


September is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month


So many of the applications we review each year for scholarship consideration contain a phrase which goes something like this: “I went in for what we thought was a routine check-up and ended up in the hospital later that night…”  As we know, cancer can often lurk in the body, undetected in a seemingly healthy person. Physical warning signs or not, receiving a cancer diagnosis for a child is at the top of the list of every parent’s worst fear.

With September being Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, we spoke to a couple of parents of past scholarship winners, and share their perspective here.

Childhood Cancer: Some Facts and Figures

The term childhood cancer encompasses kids ages 14 and under, while adolescent cancer refers to the ages of 15-19, and young adult cancer covers the age group from 20-39.

The good news…

  • Childhood cancer comprises less than one percent of all cancers diagnosed annually.
  • Survival rates are high, and have increased substantially in the past few decades: more than 80 percent of these childhood cancer patients will survive five years and beyond.


  • Cancer is the leading cause of death by disease in children, and the second largest cause of death, behind accidents.
  • All forms of childhood cancers combined receive just 4% of U.S. federal research funding. 

A Parent’s Perspective

A cancer diagnosis devastating at any age. But families face unique stresses, from accepting this terrifying reality, to finding the best possible care for their child, to wrestling with insurance companies, and even just trying to maintain a sense of normalcy for other siblings in the home.

 “As parents, after you give birth to a healthy infant, you never think that they could get a life-threatening illness as a young child,” say Joy and Karl Anderson, parents of past scholarship recipient Gary Anderson.  Gary was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia just a couple of months shy of his third birthday.  The Andersons also had a newborn baby and a six-year-old at home.

“You want them to have a normal life of participating in school and sports but worry constantly about jeopardizing their health,” they continue. “It is especially difficult to divide your time between the sick child and their siblings who don’t understand the severity of their brother’s illness.”

Laurie Purcell is the mom of Kelly, who was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma as a 14-year-old high school freshman. (You may also recognize Kelly’s name as the same young lady who shared her talents on staff with Cancer for College for three years.)

Laurie shares, “family dynamics and roles can shift drastically, causing stress.  It’s important to acknowledge your strengths and use them.  I kicked into methodical, organizer mode. Kevin (Kelly’s dad) was our spiritual, emotional support. Kelly’s younger sister (age 11 at the time) had to grow up quickly. She became very wise, very patient and very compassionate.”

Like many mothers in her situation, Joy did not want cancer to define Gary’s childhood.  “Even with his illness, we tried to let him lead a normal life between treatments.  We knew that if he did survive we didn’t want to have him deprived of any of the experiences his sisters had.  So even while under treatment he went to nursery school as planned, and played soccer and baseball.   Gary always had and still has a love of life and a way of making the most of his circumstances.  I know there were times when he was sick to his stomach or weak but he didn’t complain. He would just drag himself out of bed to go play with a remote control car, fly a kite or play with his sisters or friends.”

Joy and Gary Anderson

Joy and Gary Anderson

The added financial stress of the diagnosis is another huge reality families must face.  “Despite what you are dealing with at the hospital, you still need to pay the bills which, even with insurance, put a burden on you financially,” says Joy.

“Money stress can be so overwhelming!” Laurie shares with an honest heart. “We are so fortunate to have health insurance. But, even so, money was immediately flying out the window. Gas, hospital food, medical supplies, co-pays, parking, wigs, tutors, new bed, clothing due to weight loss, therapy and nutritional supplements, all continuing for the full year of treatment.”


Cancer for College was founded for this exact reason.  Many families exhaust their financial resources, even future college and retirement savings, desperate to save their child’s life. College dreams are derailed by the diagnosis. With a scholarship, Cancer for College helps these survivors get back to the dreams they once had, and hopefully, makes funding the dream of attending college a little easier.

Recovery through Resiliency

Kids tend to be naturally resilient, and research seems to show that this plays a positive role in their recovery.


Scholarship recipient Andrew Dotzler

“We see them as a flourishing population that has adapted to the stress of having cancer and undergoing treatment,” said Sean Phipps, PhD, Behavior Medicine, in an article featured on “They become quite resilient to the long- and short-term emotional and physical effects of their disease and the treatments.”

Purcell Family

Purcell Family, from left: Laurie, Colleen, Kelly, Kevin

“As a family, we put on a warrior mentality,” remembers Laurie Purcell. “We ALL fought the illness. We ALL changed our diet, routines, lifestyles. We prayed a lot. We forcefully visualized the chemo killing cancer cells and we truly believed that she would survive.” How appropriate that Kelly means “warrior woman” in Gaelic, as she was in the fight of her life.

The St. Jude article continues, “the unexpected finding that children with cancer are emotionally resilient is important because of the dramatic improvement in survival rates of pediatric cancers.”  Dr. Phipps continues, “there has been a shift in research toward the concerns of long-term survivors of pediatric cancers. The ability of these children to cope with the after-effects of cancer is the major issue now. What we are learning from this population might help us learn how to improve the quality of life of children who are not doing so well.”


Scholarship recipient Gina Nesbitt

Ultimately, the goal is to place these kids back into the life they were forced to put on hold, allowing these young cancer survivors and their families to celebrate all the milestones in life that everyone should be able to look forward to.

Facts and figures were gathered from,, and

Special thanks to the Anderson and Purcell Families for sharing their perspectives for this post.

A Big Thank You from Cancer for College!

Our name in lights at the San Diego Civic Theater! Photo courtesy of Caroline Wohl

Our name in lights at the San Diego Civic Theater!
Photo by Caroline Wohl

Dear Friends of Cancer for College,

THANK YOU to all who came out Saturday night to share some laughs at the Comedy Explosion hosted by Will Ferrell. It meant so much to us to see the San Diego Civic Theater filled to capacity — 3,000 seats! — in support of our charity, which started so small 20 years ago and has grown into something today that we could never have imagined.

It takes a village to raise nearly $350,000 for college students who have survived cancer.  To the unselfish efforts of so many, from performers and producers donating their time and talents, to charity volunteers putting in long hours, to community sponsors providing food, and to all those who attend our events, we are most grateful. There are countless charities to support, and the fact that so many people pick ours truly leaves us in awe.

We loved everyone’s performances: Hannibal Buress, Whitney Cummings, Ed Helms, Nick Kroll, Tenacious D, Ron Burgundy, and of course, who doesn’t love seeing Will Ferrell in a jumpsuit, especially when he’s performing with the San Diego Civic Dance Arts ensemble.

But there are two especially touching moments to share. First, hearing the crowd roar as Ron Burgundy recognized current and past scholarship recipients in the audience. We feel so proud of these kids, and loved seeing and hearing 3,000 people cheer them on. The second was backstage, when Jack Black asked how much it cost the charity to pay for the celebrities’ travel expenses. Upon finding out, he wrote a personal check to Cancer for College to cover the costs for both he and his band to appear that night.  In his own special way, he said it was “a great honor to support such a fine CHARI-TAY.”

With grateful hearts, and on behalf of everyone at Cancer for College, again we say thank you.

— Craig & Stacy Pollard