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A Success Story - Alex Whittier

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Alex Whittier

       Alex has graduated from Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, majoring in Mechanical Engineering, as well as being a teaching assistant.  Through his journey with cancer, Alex has become motivated to impact the world by bringing engineering technology and compassion to developing countries.  He has survived Papillary Thyroid Cancer.  In his own words:

“My cancer diagnosis came at what I would consider to be close to the worst possible moment it could have.  My father had just passed away suddenly and unexpectantly from a heart attack.  Just two weeks later, I was at the doctor for a routine examination for heartburn symptoms when he discovered a nodule on my thyroid and recommended a biopsy.  The rest just flows into a whirlwind of bad to worse as the emotions of dealing with my father's death, suddenly requiring frequent doctor visits to prepare me for upcoming surgery, and trying to function through daily life and classes - all while living away from home at college - began to slam into me. 

A few days after my thyroidectomy procedure, I was readmitted to the hospital through the emergency room when my entire body began going numb due to stunned parathyroid glands from the surgery.  I spent several days under closely monitored care, and those days were quite frankly a psychological hell to me.  After having watched my father take his last breath as he lay unconscious in a hospital bed, my anxiety that every hospital internment inevitably ends in death became very high.  At every moment that I was lying in my hospital bed, the fear that I was going to slip out of life at any moment just as my dad had a few weeks earlier was very real to me; even though everyone else in the hospital knew that I was not on that verge.  It greatly affected my sleep and appetite.  That anxiety continued long after I was released.  Readjusting to normal life was and continues to be a very slow and steady process. 

My scientifically-curious brain; however, has loved to observe my own body's reactions and adjustments as I now live without a thyroid.  It is absolutely fascinating!  I have strange hormonal shifts that happen frequently, like finding myself waking up in the middle of the night absolutely drenched in sweat for no real reason.  My friends affectionately call it sweating the bed or 'manopause.'  I have less energy and physical stamina than I used to as well.  My appetite is usually much smaller now, but on occasion, I feel like eating an entire large pizza on my own.  My fingernails also grow more quickly now, and my eyes are noticeably drier. 

My cancer diagnosis came in the middle of a semester of rigorous math and engineering classes.  I was already having a tough time staying motivated to get up and go to school because I was devastated by my father's death, and the cancer diagnosis only aggravated that.  Additionally, I had to skip class many times for blood tests, a biopsy, doctor appointments, and eventually for surgery and recovery.  With all of these setbacks, I had to withdraw completely from two classes, and make special accommodations with the university to lengthen my time to complete the coursework past the end of the semester in another class.  Finishing that class proved to be difficult as I developed severe anxiety in the aftermath of my surgery and found it very hard to concentrate on schoolwork. 

Withdrawing from my math class caused many long term academic ripples.  I became ineligible for future enrollment in many other courses I had planned with that course as a prerequisite, so I had to revamp my graduation plan and schedule to accommodate for retaking Multivariable Calculus before moving on.  This added an entire year more to my required school completion time than I would have had without the delay.  However, if anything, the setback has helped me realize the importance of education and the increased impact for good I can have in the world as a qualified engineer. 

Not only has my experience with cancer helped me realize that I really do want to be an engineer, but it has also refined my focus of what I want to actually do as an engineer.  It has filled me with a kind of zeal and a new love for life that I never had before.  I now find much more fulfillment in simply talking with people, more beauty in nature, and more understanding of what really comforts people when they are in the depths of despair.  And I'm happy to be able to help: I want to help alleviate suffering of all types in the world. 

I discovered an organization on campus called the Global Engineering Outreach Club (GEO), and I have adopted their goals as my goals:  to use technical engineering knowledge to develop and improve life in developing countries through creative implementation of technology.  They do things such as make sustainable drinking water pumps and filters for villages in Peru.  This is a very fulfilling mission to me, and although it is not directly related to cancer, helping others have a higher quality of life, a happier life, has become important to me because of my experience with cancer.  I have also volunteered as a full-time missionary for my church for two years in Uruguay.  At B.Y.U., through the Tau Beta Pi engineering honor society and the A.S.M.E. chapter, I have additionally been able to work with elementary students to teach them basic robotic skills.

As part of the GEO, I have already taken part in a weekend trip to the Navajo Nations Reservation in southern Utah and it was incredible!  We worked on projects ranging from installing solar panels on roofs in a small town, to laying underground pipe at the household of a widow who lives alone, 10 miles from anyone else, so that she could have a water faucet near her house and not have to walk to a well for water. 

I have developed a much keener sense of the importance of each and every individual, and that one-on-one compassion is just as impactful as serving a large group.  As such, I have consciously tried to connect with those around me on a deep emotional level, so that I can be with them in their hard times and give them hope that things will work out just fine.  I believe that is as noble of a positive impact as anything else that could be done. 

The ordeal surrounding my experience with cancer has really turned my life inside out.  Many things that were once constant are now just fond memories from the past.  I have a new lifestyle and a different set of obstacles to overcome than I ever anticipated.  However, the crucible of the experience has helped me to expand my vision of what life is really all about, and I have begun to find joy in reaching out to others instead of just seeking after my own self interest. 

I look forward to a long life of service and innovation for the world as a mechanical engineer.  Thank you, Cancer Survivors' Fund for helping me on this most-noble journey.  Obviously, life is different now, but life is good!"

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