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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Young cancer survivor finishes Gonzaga degree

Four years disease-free brings changes, opportunities

When Carissa Outen walks across the stage to receive her diploma from Gonzaga University today, she’ll have an anchor on her mortarboard.

It’s in memory of one of her heroes, Pat Fiorillo, who lost his second bout with cancer when Outen was a college freshman. Fiorillo had given her hope and strength when she was fighting the disease in her senior year of high school.

“That hit hard. It hit me with survivor’s guilt,” Outen said recently. “I didn’t have two daughters relying on me.”

Still, her four years at Gonzaga have been relatively normal. It was a welcome change after chemo and radiation treatments, a stem-cell transplant and countless doctor visits from a recurrence of her rare cancer three months before she graduated from high school. Then, she struggled to keep her mortarboard in place because she had no hair.

But the 23-year-old has been cancer-free for five years, and she said she is thankful for her GU experience and her health.

“The gift is she beat cancer, that she’s alive and well enough to graduate,” said her mother, Gwen Ashcraft.

Ashcraft added, with emotion, “I feel numb. It’s so surreal.”

‘You know, I’m going to graduate from Gonzaga’

Outen’s journey through her senior year left an impression, and seeing her accomplish another goal is doing the same for those who know her.

“Daily life, as sick as she was, was incomprehensible,” said Steve Fisk, North Central High School’s current principal and former assistant principal. “Even in her most challenging moments, and at her sickest moments, she lit up a room every time. Her grace and her courage are an example for all of us.”

Fisk recalled one moment in particular, when Outen was sitting in his office.

“I asked her what she was going to do, and she said: ‘You know, I’m going to graduate from Gonzaga.’ And she did it.”

Fisk and former North Central Principal Steven Gering each received college graduation announcements from Outen.

“Her graduation announcement made my day,” Gering said. “She’s an awesome kid. She never gave up no matter how hard it was for her.”

‘That’s Mother’s Day’

For her part, Outen is bored with cancer. She prefers not to talk about it.

“I don’t think about it much anymore,” she said during a recent interview at the apartment where she lives with five women, her closest friends. “I don’t bring up my past. There really is no reason to.”

The disease is not what defines her, although anxiety of a relapse lingers, she says.

“I’ve learned love is the most important thing in life,” Outen said. “That’s what got me to Gonzaga, my personal love for this school. That’s what got me through cancer.”

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 – stage 4, the most severe.

The following summer Outen was in Seattle for three months for a stem-cell transplant. Six months later, doctors told her she was in remission.

And the news is still good, after dozens of follow-up visits. But the potential that one day she’ll hear the opposite can be overwhelming.

“Through all of this there are still some real doubts in her mind. The anxiety overrides her confidence sometimes,” her mother said. “The real strength is not letting that overcome you. The true struggle comes after the hospital visits. That fear of relapse.”

Outen says every time her lymph nodes feel swollen or she nears a hospital “it’s like PTSD.” She tries to tell herself not to worry.

For Ashcraft, every year she gets the news that her daughter’s scans are still clear, “that’s Mother’s Day.”

Reaching the five-year mark is a positive sign for someone who has been treated for cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.

But Ashcraft and her daughter know there are no guarantees.

Taking a break to ‘just live’

Outen took the first year after high school off to recover from treatment and spread her wings before enrolling in classes at GU.

She had dreamed of being a Bulldog since grade school.

Her original plan for college was a double major in organizational leadership and health care followed by a year in the Peace Corps, followed by a return to Gonzaga for a master’s degree in health care management.

She called that her five-year plan. But like many young students, her plans changed.

“I went from, ‘I want to work at nonprofits’ to ‘I want to go to law school’ to ‘It’s too expensive,’ ” said Outen, who is getting a bachelor’s degree in sociology.

Her academic adviser, Matt Bahr, taught Outen in several classes.

“She’s the kind of student who just jumps right in the middle of a classroom and she’s ready to go,” said Bahr, now an associate dean for the College of Arts and Sciences. “She doesn’t talk a lot, so when you first get to know her you would think she was really shy and reserved. But really, she’s not. She’s pretty thoughtful. When she does say things, they are generally substantive.”

Bahr had quite a bit of discussion with Outen when she was preparing to study abroad in Ghana, Africa. He said he never had a student who wanted to go there.

Outen spent six months at the University of Ghana.

“I think Ghana is where I got in touch with being assertive and being independent,” Outen said. “I found the person who never has a filter.”

Outen also interned for six months at Make-A-Wish. During her first bout with cancer at 16, the organization sent her and her family on a Caribbean cruise to fulfill her wish of swimming with dolphins. She said she enjoyed helping other kids get their wishes.

Outen also worked at GU, setting up and tearing down for events, and at The Onion restaurant.

“That’s why, I’ve decided reluctantly, I’m going to take six months to a year off and just live,” she said. “I haven’t had time to do that.”

Outen is thankful for the education she’s received from GU and the friends she’s made.

She’s one student the university will not soon forget, said Bahr, her adviser.

“Gonzaga has lots of great students. Carissa made us better.”