Keenan: Cancer patient vows to stay on track in school

Marney Rich Keenan
The Detroit News

When Josh Stewart turned 18 this past spring, he was looking forward to graduating from high school, attending college and pursuing a career in sports management or sports medicine.

By August, Josh learned that life can change on a dime.

No longer able to ignore the lumps under his arm and on his chest, Josh finally showed them to his mother. Immediately concerned, Jacquelyn Stewart, a single mom who lives with Josh in an immaculate one-bedroom apartment in Warren, rushed her son to Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak.

After almost six hours of waiting, doctors had a diagnosis: Stage 3 Hodgkin lymphoma.

“By the time they finished all those tests, it was around midnight,” Jacquelyn says. “I almost collapsed. You just don’t think your child is going to have cancer.”

Josh’s treatment regimen is six to eight months of chemotherapy infusions. “And this!” his mother says while holding up a shoebox-size plastic container overflowing with prescriptions. Jacquelyn, who works as a customer service representative at WIC’s Moms and Babes Too program in Detroit, says Medicaid has covered most of the prescriptions.

The silver lining, Josh says, is that doctors said his cancer is curable, if treated aggressively.

“It’s going to be tough, but they say I’m young and I’m strong and I can beat it,” he says.

He has loads of family support, too: no less than 20 aunts and uncles and cousins showed up at Beaumont when he received his diagnosis.

Still Josh’s dreams of graduating of high school in 2016 would have to be deferred — or so he thought.

Days after his diagnosis, Jacquelyn Stewart called Josh’s school, the Universal Training Center of Michigan (UTC), an alternative education school in Madison Heights, to tell administrators Josh was sick and would have to take an extended leave of absence.

Dean Reynolds, president of the school, had other plans.

“Josh is a really great kid,” Reynolds says. “He’s a good student and his morale is better than anyone I ever met. He’s really determined to beat this. So we wanted to make sure we gave him every opportunity we could to succeed.” (Reynolds is also an elected Clinton Township trustee.)

To that end, Reynolds provided Josh with a used laptop so he could work on his studies at home. But when it was discovered that Josh and Jacquelyn did not have Internet service — Josh had been working online at his grandmother’s house in Detroit — UTC’s community liaison, Greg Murray, sent an email to Steven Cochran, the president of WOW, the Denver-based Internet cable and phone company, explaining Josh’s situation.

Murray says no less than 30 minutes later, a WOW representative was scheduling time to install high-speed Internet service in the apartment, all free, for as long Josh needs it for his school work.

“Josh’s story really struck a chord with us,” said Robert DiNardo, vice president and general manager of WOW-Michigan region. “We were moved by what he’s struggling with and what he wants to accomplish, so we wanted to find a way to help.”

While it’s unusual for a corporate CEO to be so accessible to the general public, DiNardo said that’s just the way WOW operates.

“We put our executive email addresses on our website for just that reason, so that anyone can contact us,” he said. “One of the core values in this company is servanthood, which means to embrace the attitude and honor of serving others, rather than being served. That’s pretty innate within our company.”

Jacquelyn Stewart says the outpouring of support is an answer to prayer.

“That’s the only way I can explain it,” she says. “We have faith that God is going to pull us through and look what has happened.”

For now, the chemo infusions at the hospital require Josh to stay overnight. For days after he gets home, he says he can expect to feel nauseous, have no appetite and experience severe fatigue. He also knows he might have very well fallen through the cracks were it not for all the support.

“These people believe in me and, for that reason, I really have to push myself,” Josh says. “Really push.”

Josh plans to graduate sometime next year and apply to Oakland University or Eastern Michigan University. At 6 feet, 2 inches tall, he’d also love to get back on the basketball court. “This is the longest time he’s been without a basketball in his hand,” his mother says.

Reynolds says the timing couldn’t be better: “We’re starting a basketball program next year, which is all the more reason for Josh to get through this. We need him on our team.”