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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

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SDSU Director of Development Technology Tammy Blackburn (left) and Cameron McCullough SDSU Director of Development Technology Tammy Blackburn (left) and Cameron McCullough

Courage Through Cancer

A new fund, created by SDSU alumna Tammy Blackburn, supports students affected by cancer.
By Tobin Vaughn

“You’re definitely not a number at San Diego State; you’re Cameron McCullough and you’re an Aztec.”

Click here to make your gift to the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund now.

Two years ago, Cameron McCullough was as carefree as any high school kid could be, earning decent grades, riding his skateboard, and playing volleyball and basketball with friends. His mom, Schoulee Cones, had a great job as a clinical research associate, which paid their bills and allowed them to plan for a future that would include Cameron’s college education.

That was until the nagging ache that made sitting uncomfortable became an excruciating pain that doubled Cones over and repeatedly sent her to doctors for some relief. During an emergency room visit, she finally received an explanation.

“The doctor came in horrified,” Cones recalled. “She said, ‘You have a gigantic mass and we need to get it biopsied.’ That’s when I was diagnosed; it was squamous cell carcinoma, metastatic to the bone.”

The news was devastating for Cones, a registered nurse who knew exactly what it portended for her and for Cameron, her only child. Her cancer is a difficult type to treat and it wasn’t long before it began exacting an overwhelming physical, emotional and financial toll on their close-knit family of two.

“Everything started crumbling”

Unable to work and battling for her own survival, Cones felt helpless watching her income and savings evaporate. Cameron got a job at Home Depot, but his paychecks weren’t nearly enough to cover the bills. “We had to sell his car to pay rent and everything just went quick,” Cones said.

She hated the fact that she would no longer be able to provide Cameron the financial foundation for the future they both had imagined for him. “He is my purpose in life always—for everything,” she said. “He’s just a great kid.”

She tries to stay strong for him; he does the same for her. Together, they managed to get Cameron, who is now 19, through high school and into his first year at SDSU where he studies kinesiology with the goal of becoming a physical therapist.

With help from the university’s financial aid office, his freshman year started out smoothly, but then began to unravel, starting with a bad check. “I had never written a bounced check and I didn’t know what to do,” Cones explained. “Everything started crumbling.”

A pay-or-quit notice appeared on their door. With no family to turn to, Cones felt desperate.

“They didn’t know the situation at SDSU. All they knew was that I wasn’t paying. It was so hard for Cameron to concentrate in school. His meal plan got cut off. I would bring him food and we would sit in the (parking) garage and eat it.

Sharing those simple meals in her car, Cones and her son would encourage each other and try to remain optimistic. A positive person by nature, she has always been truthful with Cameron about their circumstances, maintaining a sanguine disposition even as she wonders how to secure gas and food or come up with the rent money.

Ever present, of course, is her cancer. The thought of it is inescapable for both of them.

A champion's fight

A year ago—September 1, 2017, to be exact—SDSU Director of Development Technology Tammy Blackburn (’94, ’01) received her own troubling diagnosis. She had breast cancer that had spread to some of her lymph nodes.

Her treatment included chemotherapy followed by surgery and radiation treatments. The regimen, which lasted the better part of a year, was grueling and often agonizing.

Blackburn, a standout guard for the Aztec women’s basketball team in the early 1990s, gutted up and approached her ordeal the same way she would take on any tough opponent during her playing days, with extensive preparation, deft execution, and meticulous follow-through. True to form, she beat cancer like the champ that she is.

An SDSU Alumni employee by day, Blackburn moonlights as a sports broadcaster for CBS Sports, ESPN, and the PAC-12 Network. Even after she lost her hair to the chemo, she went on television bald.

Difficult choices

Blackburn is a giver, so it’s no surprise that her takeaway from a year of fighting her own cancer was to notice the effect the illness can have on others. While she has reliable employment, an incredible support system, and excellent health care, she encountered many others in vastly different situations.

“Many people have to make decisions on how to spend their limited income,” Blackburn said. “Some must choose between paying for food and incidentals for either themselves or their loved ones and paying medical bills to receive life-saving treatment.”

Having heard stories on campus about the impact of cancer on the lives of students, Blackburn asked SDSU financial aid administrators if there was an unmet need among students affected by cancer. Their immediate response was yes, absolutely.

At that point I knew what I wanted to do,” she said. “I don’t want SDSU students forced to make a decision between school and medical bills. I don’t want them dropping out.”

So she created the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund named for the UC San Diego Health doctors who saved her life—surgeon Anne M. Wallace and oncologist Rebecca A. Shatsky. The fund was announced at an August 15 gathering in La Jolla after an initial $45,000 had been pledged by donors.

The most extreme

Through SDSU Financial Aid and Scholarships Director Rose Pasenelli, Blackburn identified McCullough as the first student her fund would assist. As coordinator for the university’s Economic Crisis Response Team (ECRT), Pasenelli, who has worked on campus for 30 years, describes Cameron’s case as serious.

“His is the most extreme so far,” she says. In addition to the concerns of any freshman, he worried about his mom’s failing health along with his own mounting debt.

With no job, his mother could never qualify for a loan. The gap between his financial aid and the cost of his education is thousands of dollars. Cameron felt swamped.

“My fear was that he was just going to pack and leave,” Pasenelli recalled. “He started shutting down—that was a red flag for us—and that’s why I brought it to the ECRT.”

The team made Cameron’s case a top priority, interceding on his behalf to ensure he had food and housing, but financial aid and student assistance funding have their limitations. Pasenelli views Blackburn’s new fund as filling a critical need.

“Tammy‘s fund will help us to help students faster,” she pointed out. “This fund will help us set students up for success on the front end instead of stressing all the way through the year and trying to scramble and find money wherever we can.”

Having accrued thousands of dollars in debt, Cameron worked full-time all summer at his Home Depot job, unsure how he would pay for his classes this fall. Then, in late August, he received word that some representatives from SDSU Alumni wanted to speak with him and his mom.

Not just a number

Early in the afternoon of August 21, Cones and Cameron received a visit from Blackburn and Assistant Vice President of SDSU Alumni Dan Montoya (’04). After a lengthy exchange of pleasantries, Blackburn got around to the point of the visit: “Cameron McCullough, you will be the first recipient of the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund.”

What that meant, she explained, was that Cameron’s remaining debt from last year would be paid along with a portion of his tuition, a meal plan and books for the fall semester. Furthermore, additional assistance will be available in the spring if Cameron, who currently maintains a 3.2 GPA, continues his strong scholastic performance.

The relief in the room was palpable. No one’s eyes remained dry.

“I’m lighter already,” Cones said through tears as her son choked back tears. “I can’t tell you how much this means to me. Thank you so much.”

“We believe in you,” Blackburn told Cameron, her affirmation releasing a torrent of emotion as he struggled to express his visibly profound gratitude.

“No one has believed in me more than my own mom,” he said, “and it’s good to know that my school doesn’t think of me as just a number because that’s what I thought for a long time.”

“You’re definitely not a number at San Diego State; you’re Cameron McCullough and you’re an Aztec,” Blackburn reassured him.

Coping with uncertainty

After some time to ponder Blackburn’s announcement, Cameron contemplated his mother’s illness, their circumstances, and their relationship, his observations reflecting less bravado and more candid assessment. He admits to being short on coping skills when it comes to her deteriorating health.

“To be honest, I’m still learning (how to cope) right now,” he said. “I tend to shut things out. I tend to not think about it.

“It has always been us two, just me and my mom, but I don’t need much family.”

And if his mom is not there?

“That’s a tough one. I haven’t thought about that in a while.”

Cameron paused before completing his answer.  He drew a deep breath and exhaled before continuing.

“I use everything she has taught me,” he concluded, “and I live life as best I can.”

Going places

Cones finds comfort in knowing her son’s education is covered for now no matter what may transpire in other areas of their lives. The Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund has lifted a heavy burden.

Uncertain about the course of her battle with cancer, Cones meets each new challenge with determination and hope, banishing any thought that may creep from the corners of her mind of her only child alone in the world. Despite all she faces and all she fears, she chooses to believe Cameron will be okay.

“He’s got all the workings to be an amazing man and he is,” she reasons. “He’s my boy, though.

“I think he’s going to go places—I know he will—even without me. I know he can do this now.”