Student pursues degree despite Stage 4 cancer

Ella Burnside

“I’ve never had a cigarette in my life, but I have lung cancer,” Robbie Boarman, a father of two and a civil engineering student from Owensboro, said.

The 25-year-old is working to complete his last two semesters of school while battling stage four adenocarcinoma.

Adenocarcinoma is a non-small cell lung cancer that is most often seen in non-smokers.

Boarman was diagnosed with cancer the Thursday before classes started this semester when a small lump on his neck, similar to the size of a swollen lymph node, failed to go away after a few weeks.

Visits with doctors and several tests revealed that the problem was lung cancer that had metastasized, or spread. This cancer, doctors told him, was not a rapidly-growing cancer.

Based on his age and lack of family history, doctors said the cause was likely an unknown chemical exposure. Cancer was found in Boarman’s lungs, brain, esophagus and neck.

“I had five tumors in my brain, and a couple of doctors were surprised that I was completely symptomless,” he said.

Boarman and his wife traveled to several hospitals in Houston, Nashville, Louisville and Bowling Green but were dissatisfied with the treatment they received from some of the doctors.

The hospitals in Houston and Nashville said Boarman could not get in to see a doctor for two weeks. With Stage 4 cancer and two children at home, Boarman said that was not good enough. It was doctors in Louisville who ultimately earned his respect.

“I have a cousin who is doing her residency at U of L, and she had doctors calling me within 24 hours of my diagnosis,” he said. “The doctors in Louisville told me to go somewhere close to home.”

Louisville doctors told Boarman there was nothing that they could do for him that a hospital closer to home couldn’t do just as well. He then decided Mitchell Memorial Cancer Center in his hometown of Owensboro was the best choice.

“I am very happy with my treatment,” he said. “That’s what’s so great about America: If Barack Obama were diagnosed with cancer tomorrow, I’d be getting the same treatment that he would.”

Soon after his diagnosis, Boarman went to his professor and close friend Matt Dettman to tell him the news and discuss his future.

“Robbie was my student worker over the summer,” Dettman said. “I’ve had him in several classes. When he told me he had been diagnosed and said he was coming back to school, I said, ‘You might want to consider taking some time to do whatever you want to do.’”

Boarman told Dettman what he wanted was to finish his degree.

“He taught me something very valuable in that moment,” Dettman said. “I’ve been a professor now for 20 years, and I know how important this job is, but for him, it’s a dream. I need to make sure that I give that the respect that it deserves.”

Dettman said he knew getting a degree was important to a lot of students but that Boarman kept that piece of knowledge within perspective.

“If he is showing up while going through chemotherapy, then I had better be doing the same thing,” Dettman said. “He’s inspiring everyone around him.”

Boarman said he didn’t have a whole lot of time to make his decision because his diagnosis occurred close to the start of the semester.

“I had one doctor tell me, ‘Six months from now, you may not be here, and you should spend this time with your family,’” he said. “I didn’t believe them — I knew that in six months, I would need to be looking for a job to support my children.”

It was a conversation with Dettman that ultimately solidified Boarman’s decision to stay in school.

“Matt said to me, ‘There are two ways you can go about this: You can either be a victim, or you can be an inspiration,’” he said. “I’m definitely not going to be a victim.”

Dettman and the seniors in the civil engineering program were so inspired by Boarman’s strength, dedication and passion that they decided to honor him through their senior project — the concrete canoe.

“We always name the canoe and come up with a theme,” he said. “And we decided to name the canoe ‘Courageous’ in honor of Robbie. It’s kind of a cancer awareness theme.”

Fellow concrete canoe team member, Bowling Green senior Joshua Amos said Boarman’s decision to stay in school has really motivated the senior class to push through these last two semesters.

“Not just for us but for him as well,” Amos said. “He’s really impacted our senior class — we’re all behind him 100 percent.”

As for how his treatment is going, Boarman said that on his last MRI, the scans showed that all the masses in his brain were gone. And on his most recent PET scan, the doctors were surprised to not see any cancer. He said they had expected to see the tumors in his brain go away, but the PET scan results were not expected.

“I’m a very religious person, and my name is in many a prayer circle… with Stage 4 cancer, (the doctors) will never tell me I am in remission… They will never tell me I don’t have cancer,” he said. “From August until the day I die, I will have Stage 4 adenocarcinoma.”

Despite the long road ahead of him —a road that includes scans every six weeks for the rest of his life — Boarman, his friends, family and doctors feel hopeful.

“The nurses in Owensboro stood up and started clapping when my wife and I walked into my oncologist’s office,” he said. “My doctor said he’d never seen results like this. I think it took everything in him to not say the word ‘miracle’ — but you know how doctors are.”