Life’s biggest hurdle: Student puts college on hold, battles cancer

Branden Sammons, a lifelong Cyclone, accepted his offer of admission to Iowa State, filled out his housing contract and even paid his tuition before doctors told him he had stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He now faces a six-month delay to the start of his schooling.

Rachel Sinn

Most people do not think about the possibility of getting cancer at the age of 18.

Plans of college, a future career and the next step in life after high school graduation are often main thoughts during the summer. For Branden Sammons, however, cancer became a reality and an obstacle before getting his chance to begin college.

Branden, a native of Orient, Iowa, has always been an active Cyclone fan. So when it came time to commit to a college, Iowa State was his first choice for their architecture program.

With a dorm secured, classes scheduled and tuition paid for, all that was left for Branden was the big move.

Things were not to be so easy, though.

Everything changed when a lump located on his neck, previously tested and cleared as noncancerous, began to grow in size.

“This June, all of the sudden [the lump] just swelled up,” said Branden’s mother Renee Sammons. “We went into the doctor July 11, and they said the needle biopsy was negative for cancer.”

After some consideration, Branden and his family decided it would be best to have the lump removed to ease their mind. On July 22, he went in to get it removed.

Only three days after surgery, the doctor called the Sammons family to discuss the results of the tissue removed and sent to the lab, but Branden had an unsettling feeling that something was wrong.

“It kind of creeped me out when the doctor called, because we were supposed to meet with him Aug. 4,” Branden said. “I thought if he wants us to come in this early, something’s not right.”

The feelings were confirmed with a diagnosis of stage III Hodgkin’s lymphoma cancer. Emotions were mixed among the family, but shock was something they all agreed upon. Renee described the realization as an emotional roller coaster while Branden was mainly just angry in the beginning.

“It made me mad that I could not go to Iowa State,” Branden said. “I was like ‘No!’”

Per the doctor’s advisement, Branden was suggested not to begin Iowa State until the spring semester after chemo rounds had been finished. Becoming sick by others on campus as a result of his low immune system is a big concern, along with his energy level and ability to attend classes which is critical in a design program like architecture.

“I was going to have the best year of my life and now it’s on a six month hold,” Branden said. “I feel like I have a bad disadvantage.”

Good news did make an appearance in August, when the doctor downgraded Branden to a stage II Hodgkin’s lymphoma because the cancer in his abdomen was found to be not active yet.

Financially, the family was relieved to find they had decent insurance coverage for all the new medical bills, but friends and family also plan to host fundraisers to help pick up the slack.

The Iowa State’s Accounts Receivable understood the family’s situation and refunded all paid tuition and allowed scholarships awarded to be put on hold for next semester.

“Our goal would be to welcome him to the Cyclone family healthier and when [Branden] is able to be with us,” said Laura Doering, Registrar and former staff member of the ISU Academic Service Center. “We have a Tuition Appeals Committee comprised of people from accounts receivable, student financial aid, and the director of student health.”

Doering explained that in cases of severe health situations or military service member deployment, the tuition refund appeal is granted almost always. Other situations where the student already knew of their health problems before beginning the semester but still attempted may not result in a 100 percent refund.

“Iowa State is about the student first, I really believe that about this environment here,” Doering said. “We’re not looking to penalize a student when something unfortunate happens.”

Doering wished the best for Branden and hopes he will be here next semester.

“[Branden] just wants to be a Cyclone, and we want him to do that and without a bill from the prior term,” Doering said. “He may have other priories for that money now and we do hope he gets better and can come to [Iowa State] when the time is right.”

Although pulling out of classes and waiting a semester for his big move was frustrating, Branden is determined to stay positive and busy with activities. He plans on taking two classes through Southwestern Community College and continue working his job at the local hardware store. He also plans on tutoring math at Orient High School.

Renee advises all parents to stay on top of their children’s health and encourages people to stay up to date with physicals.

“The doctor’s found [the lump] originally; we didn’t even notice it,” Renee said.

For those families dealing with cancer, Branden advised them to stay positive. Renee now looks at Branden’s cancer journey as a set of hurdles.

“You have to take one day at a time, once one hurdle is done then you’re on to the next, pretty soon you’re over the big one,” Renee said with a smile to Branden. “Branden, it’s just a huge hurdle. We’ve just got a bunch of little ones to go, and we’ll make it over the big one.”