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With cancer in remission, a college career awaits Carissa Outen

Carissa Outen is cancer-free and ready to start classes at Gonzaga University.

The 19-year-old realized her dream of becoming a Bulldog Friday when she moved into her dorm room – a day she and her family once feared would never come.

“I think it will feel real when I start classes,” the Spokane native said.

Outen was diagnosed in July 2008 with follicular lymphoma – one of 100 known cases worldwide in people younger than 19. The cancer cells disappeared after six months of chemotherapy, and doctors told her to expect to be in remission for at least seven years. In February 2010, Outen and her family learned the cancer was back – at stage 4, the most severe, and in the midst of her senior year in high school.

Doctors opted for a stem-cell transplant to knock out the cancer. After graduation last summer, the teenager spent three months in Seattle going through treatment; the one-year anniversary of the treatment was late last month.

Doctors in Spokane told Outen she’s in complete remission, words she and her mother, Gwen Ashcraft, had been longing to hear.

“But not returning, that’s the tricky part,” Outen said. “They (doctors) can’t say that. They can’t make that promise.”

Said Ashcraft, “It’s always a cancer life.”

Outen has never let fear of the unknown stop her from moving forward, and college is no different. “I have a five-year plan,” she recently posted on her Facebook page.

But what the ambitious teen has mapped out for the future is more like an eight-year plan. She’s planning a double major in organizational leadership and health care. Then she wants to spend a year in the Peace Corps, followed by a return to Gonzaga for a master’s degree in health care management.

Outen wants to join Gonzaga’s “Up ’til Dawn” team, which educates students about the work done by St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital to help kids with pediatric cancer and raises money for the organization.

During the summers, she hopes to work at Camp Goodtimes – a five-day overnight camp for kids ages 5 to 17 who have been diagnosed with cancer.

In addition, she plans to keep her 20-hour-a-week job at Albertsons.

As Outen unpacked and organized her dorm room Friday, she was happy, energetic and feeling like herself again, she said.

“I think me taking a year off (before going to Gonzaga) was the best thing I’ve ever done,” Outen said, referring to the year she spent recovering from her stem-cell transplant.

“Once your hair grows out, you notice people quit looking at you in a funny way, then you start to fit in,” Outen said. However, “I didn’t know from day to day what my body was going to do. It wasn’t until May that I felt normal and stable.”

Outen, who has always been outwardly optimistic about her condition, said she had to do some mental work.

“I had to have time to regroup emotionally. It takes time after any traumatic event,” Outen said. “You have to say, OK, now what? What can I learn from this? What am I going to take from this? I had to get over the whole ‘woe’ part of it.”

Outen and her mom now feel like the time is right for Gonzaga.

Said Ashcraft, “With everything she’s been through, this is her life beginning, she deserves this. Oh my God, she deserves this.”

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