A cancer diagnosis changed Caden Connelly’s vision of what his college experience would look like, but he’s taking it as an opportunity to lend a hand to others in the same boat.
Connelly, a sophomore fisheries and wildlife major, was diagnosed with an incurable form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma. Going through his own treatment and seeing others go through it as well inspired Connelly to help people in similar situations.
“I saw firsthand the effect pediatric cancer can have on families,” Connelly, of Lincoln, said. “There are so many families that struggle with not only the physical care, but also the mental and emotional care that goes into having a kid with cancer.”
Connelly and the Engler Agribusiness Entrepreneurship Program will host a spaghetti feed fundraiser from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Nov. 2 at the Dinsdale Family Learning Commons. Connelly is raising money for Angels Among Us, an Omaha-based organization that helps families dealing with pediatric cancer.
Connelly received his diagnosis in 2021, when he was a 17 and a senior in high school. A previously healthy person, he suddenly spent months looking for answers about why he was so sick.
“That came after months of tests, biopsies, countless questions,” Connelly said. “I had this time of about three months when we didn’t know what was wrong.”
Connelly had always been an active person, and he suddenly found himself unable to even go up the stairs, drive his car or go out with friends. After he began treatment, he did physical therapy and started rebuilding his strength.
“It was a really debilitating experience,” he said. “I played baseball, tennis, did theater throughout high school. And then all of a sudden, all my ability went away.”
Connelly is now preparing to participate in the Good Life Halfsy half marathon Nov. 5. He hadn’t been a runner before, but did research and talked to health professionals to figure out what he could do in his situation.
“It’s become something I’m really grateful I’m able to do, knowing that what I’m doing is something the person that going through all those events would be proud of to see that accomplishment and progress,” he said.
He’s also looking forward to sharing the moment with some of the family and friends who supported during the most challenging moments of treatment, some of whom will be able to come to the race.
Connelly was diagnosed on Nov. 12, 2021, almost exactly two years before the half marathon, so he said it will be a good opportunity to bring things full circle and look back at that period of his life.
“It’s having that time to reflect on those two years of growth, two years of change, when things were really scary,” he said.
During his treatment, Connelly saw how some families dealing with pediatric cancer have to navigate not only treatment, but all of life’s other challenges at the same time. Connelly said he was lucky in the sense that his family was in a better financial position than some of the other families he met. He knew early he wanted to find a way to help once he was able.
“I was fortunate enough to have parents with insurance that could cover treatments and they were able to keep their jobs, and there are so many families that can’t keep their homes, can’t keep their jobs, while this really terrible thing is happening to somebody they love,” he said.
That led him to Angels Among Us. The organization helps families pay for living expenses like rent, car payments and electric or phone bills. They also offer programs for emotional support and family fun nights.
Connelly said he chose the organization because he knew people were traveling hours from rural Nebraska and Iowa for treatments, piling up gas expenses or having to move homes temporarily. Rather than donating to fund cancer research, he wanted to pivot to addressing those needs.
“I saw the impact it had made on families and I wanted to focus my attention on that,” he said.
Connelly was grateful for the support he received in partnering with the Engler program. He spoke with some of his mentors in the program about the idea and was surprised at how quickly they came on board.
“I mentioned it kind of in passing, and it was 100% all in, we’ll do whatever you need,” he said.
Being from Lincoln, Connelly always imagined leaving his hometown for college. That changed when he had to undergo treatment as he was entering college, but he said going through the last few years gave him a new perspective about making the best of the opportunities put in front of him. It added to his motivation to find where he fit at the university.
“College is a great community to meet new people and become yourself,” Connelly said.
At his last appointment a couple of months ago, scans found no new active cancer sites and significant reduction in the existing tumors. He’s slowly going off some of the treatments and could ultimately get to a point of only low dosage treatment or even some remission.
“Things are looking really good health-wise, and I’m fortunate enough to be able to do stuff like this,” he said.