If you were diagnosed with cancer at age 13, it would be natural — and justified — to feel fear and even self-pity.
Charles Ellison skipped those steps and went directly to, “What’s next?”
“It was just a state of shock and acceptance at the same time,” he said. “I was so surprised that, ‘Wow, this is actually happening to me.’ I really didn’t know what to think.
“But at the same time, I kind of realized in the moment that there was nothing I could do to undo it. The diagnosis is what the diagnosis is … and I felt like it would be better mentally if I just accepted things as they were and focused on whatever the next step in treatment was.”
Ellison, 18, who graduates from the Center for Medical Sciences at Godwin High School on Tuesday, survived cancer and the treatments that forced him to miss substantial time from school, but still managed to excel and was awarded a Jefferson Scholarship, the premier undergraduate scholarship at the University of Virginia.
“Extraordinarily impressive that he’s been able to do what he’s been able to do in light of those circumstances,” said Bishop Bosher, a science teacher at Godwin who has taught Ellison in three of the past four years. “It’s hard enough navigating life as a teenager, much less having to deal with that also.
“Not many people can pull off what he’s pulled off.”
Ellison will be one of 34 Jefferson Scholars in the upcoming freshman class, according to the Jefferson Scholars Foundation. The scholarship, for which students are nominated by their schools, covers the entire cost of attendance for four years, plus coverage for additional enrichment experiences.
He hopes to major in chemistry, though he’s also interested in American history and exercise physiology. The flexibility offered by the Jefferson Scholars program was a large part of the appeal.
He’s long had the idea of a career in medicine. His current goal is to become a head and neck surgeon, an ambition that comes directly from his own health experiences.
In December 2015, during his eighth-grade year, he was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer, which has a high survival rate, but is not the kind of thing you want to hear when you’re 13 (or when you’re the parent of a 13-year-old).
The following month, surgeons removed his thyroid gland and many of his lymph nodes. Since then, he’s gone through two radioactive iodine therapies. Though the cancer is “dormant,” he said, recurrence is always a possibility, so he undergoes routine blood work and scans to keep an eye on things.
And what does he take out of all of that?
“I never actually went through chemotherapy, and when I think about it, I think about the fact that even though I have cancer and I’ve gone through the treatments and surgery, I think about how many kids have it worse off than me,” he said.
“I survived, but there are a lot of pediatric cancer patients who don’t. I feel like for me to waste the life I’ve been given by medical professionals and modern medicine would be disrespecting the lives that were lost. It’s almost a way of honoring the kids who were less fortunate than I am, and that’s probably what stuck deepest in my heart through those times.”
As a result, he has become involved with the Richmond-based ASK Childhood Cancer Foundation and also has become an advocate for pediatric cancer research, lobbying for more funding at the General Assembly.
“Not many teens or adults are brave enough to share their struggles,” said Amy Godkin, ASK executive director. “Charles chooses to share his story as a way of helping others going through pediatric cancer treatment. Whether it’s speaking at an event or advocating to state legislators, Charles is using his voice to help make a difference here in our community.”
Ellison also became involved with the ASK Moving Forward Wellness Program, which set him up with a YMCA trainer who has helped Ellison become more fitness- and health-oriented. Even though he considered himself athletic before, he is “the most physically fit I’ve ever been.”
Bosher said he sees a lot of “really bright and very talented kids,” but that Ellison stands out not only because he’s smart and works hard but because he combines those attributes in a way “that is not overbearing and that he’s easy to be around.”
“He’s just very well-rounded, which is going to make him, no matter what he decides to do, sought after by a lot of different people,” Bosher said. “I have no doubt he will be very successful in whatever he puts his efforts into.”
When he looks back on those days after he was diagnosed, he’d like to go back and tell his 13-year-old self to take a longer view and understand there is “so much more at the end of the tunnel” than simply surviving.
“It’s a second chance I’ve been given,” he said. “I have to make that worth something.”