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Grant Winner: Preston Willey

Preston, 26, has faced testicular cancer and a gastrointestinal neuroendocrine tumor and one of this year's grant winners. He shared: Ever since my initial diagnosis in 2017, I have been determined to not let cancer stop me from moving forward and pursuing good things in my life. I got married to the love of my life in 2019, and we just had our first child in January! We have both pressed forward with our educations and worked to build the lives we want, but it hasn't been easy. Cancer burdened me with medical debt and brought significant emotional and physical challenges. Excelling academically has been difficult amidst frequent hospital stays, severe pain, and intense health-related stress. To cover medical expenses and make ends meet, I have worked full-time during summers and more than 18 hours per week while taking classes.


As the scars from four majors surgeries and the effects of chemo fade, cancer's profound impact on my perspective remains. The dedication of my doctors not only kept me alive but also shifted my life goals and inspired my commitment to emulate my heroic physicians. When I began college, I was a finance major with my sights set on Wall Street. But in confronting my mortality and experiencing the transformative power of medicine, I discovered the value of wellness. I now desire to become part of that life-changing process by helping offer hope, healing, and comfort to those facing health struggles.


There isn't one specific story that stands out, so I will share a few funny things that have happened during my cancer journey.


Growing up, I had very blond, straight hair. Through cancer, I discovered that it must have been my most noticeable characteristic and the way that many people recognized me. After losing my hair due to chemotherapy treatment, it grew back dark and curly -- the opposite of my original hair!


At the time, I had moved back to my childhood home in the small town where I grew up, so I frequently ran into teachers and friends from class and sports. More than once, I had 10+ minute conversations with these people where I caught up on their life and what they were up to, only to have them exclaim at the end, "Oh Preston! I didn't even recognize you. I have been trying to figure out how this random stranger knows and cares about me. It's so good to see you!"


I would then explain what had happened with my hair and we would redo the entire conversation with the very important context of my personal identity in mind.


Another time, a family friend visited me during a chemotherapy infusion. He is a father of three daughters who had recently convinced him to get his first pedicure. Despite his objections, he loved the pedicure. He told me over the phone that it was the most relaxing experience of his life and that he would give me a foot massage when he visited.


Later that week, he arrived and gave me the promised foot rub which felt amazing -- but he then proceeded to remove my socks and prepare to paint my toe nails! I allowed it because cancer had brought me low and I needed all the entertainment and humor I could get. After finishing my bright blue nails, he then went around offering the same service to other patients in the unit and even the nurses!


He gave out a lot of foot massages and painted a lot of toe nails that day. He wasn't very good at it but we all got a good laugh at his shocking lack of inhibition and odd enthusiasm for painting toe nails.


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