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Telling Cancer to ‘Go Away’

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Marlon Castillo | New University
Marlon Castillo | New University

“Cuck Fancer,” a nonprofit founded by UCI alumnus and cancer survivor Ben Teller, will be fundraising this week.

After a routine scan in June of 2011, Ben Teller, a two-time cancer survivor at the time, came home to a voice mail from the City of Hope.

“Why is the doctor calling me?” he thought. Teller was just finishing his fourth year at the University of California at Irvine.

While he sat on the couch with his mother, he listened to the message that said, “Ben, we want you to know that we found something abnormal on your scan.”

After already having been diagnosed with cancer at ages 18 and 21, after countless cycles of chemotherapy, after having his life brutally interrupted twice by Hodgkins lymphoma, a cancer that is characterized by the spread of disease from one lymph node group to another, Ben Teller finally said, “Fuck cancer.”

Just four days before leaving home to start his freshman year at UC Irvine, on Sept. 17, 2007, Teller was at the doctor’s office after a series of reoccurring fevers.  Following standard procedure, the doctor performed a number of tests in hopes of determining the fever’s culprit.  After about six hours in the doctor’s office, still only thoughts of beginning college consumed the excited Teller’s mind.

As an hour passed in the waiting room while Ben’s mother talked to the doctor behind a closed door, it was the first time that Ben thought that something wasn’t right.

Teller’s mother appeared and as she wiped tears from her swollen eyes, asked Ben if they could talk in the car.

The doctors had found something abnormal.

“The scan revealed an eight-centimeter mass on the left side of my chest off of my heart,” Teller recalled, who at the time did not understand the gravity of the situation.

“I had to do something for school that night, and my Mom kept telling me not to worry about it.”

While Teller spoke with his parents he didn’t understand why he wouldn’t be joining his classmates.

“What do you mean?  Am I going to school on Monday?” Ben asked.

“No, you’re not,” his mother replied.

“That’s when it hit me,” said Ben.

While Ben had just received devastating news in regards to his health, “The word ‘cancer’ wasn’t there yet,” said Teller.  “I was just upset that I wouldn’t be going to school.”

That night at 9 p.m., Ben had an appointment with a specialist.  As he sat listening to medical jargon with his parents, the naive Teller could not digest the fact that fall quarter was not something that he would be apart of: no dorm room, no roommate, no life that he had worked so hard to begin.

That was the first thing that cancer stole, yet the positive and courageous Teller did not have a bitter bone in his body.

After the meeting with the specialist, there was now a plan set in motion to attack the cancer and the first step was a biopsy.

In typical Ben Teller fashion, he didn’t blink an eye at the procedure.

“I was in really high spirits, I’m at the hospital, not worried about the anesthesia, I wake up…I have a tube in my chest, I’m not breathing on my own, I have a seven-inch scar on the side of my chest, I have a tube hanging out of me, and I don’t know what’s going on.  I have zero idea and I’m in so much pain, I can’t talk, I’m having an allergic reaction to the morphine, and it hits me, this is serious.  That’s when I realized that [the cancer] was going to do something to me physically, and that’s when it started to affect me mentally.”

After about five days in the hospital Ben went home unable to walk and for the first time, told his friends and family that he had cancer and that he would not be starting school.

“The more people I called, the more real it got.  I made more girls cry than Brad Pitt,” joked Teller.

Within two weeks, Ben was immersed in chemotherapy that consisted of six cycles once every two weeks, a cycle being four drugs administered over four and a half hours.

Ben describes his first round of chemotherapy as “not as bad as everyone says,” explaining that it would not be until the third time he was diagnosed with Hodgkins lymphoma that he truly understood what cancer meant.

As someone that wasn’t used to being idle, Ben suddenly had hours to fill while he underwent treatment.  From what started as wanting to sell bracelets spiraled into founding a 501c3 nonprofit by the name of  “Cuck Fancer.”

During one of his visits to the hospital during this time, his doctor placed a black top hat on his head that read “Fuck Cancer,” eventually inspiring the name of the nonprofit whose goal is to support young adult cancer survivors.  Cuck Fancer’s mission is to support this underrepresented group of survivors by helping them get their life back on track.  The organization, characterized by its lime green bracelets, is “dedicated to raising awareness for young adult cancer by helping young survivors into the work force,” reads the mission statement.

While he was busy with Cuck Fancer, Teller’s body responded beautifully to the chemotherapy and by March of the same school year, Ben was going to get his chance to start his college career as an Anteater.  With a welcoming roommate and resident advisor, the charismatic Teller jumped head first into school.

Teller spent that spring quarter, his first at the university, working as hard as he could to plan for the fall.  By June he knew exactly what organizations he wanted to be involved in and began making a statement on campus.

He became a member of the fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi while interning in the Athletic Department. That winter, Teller applied to intern in the Office of Student Services of ASUCI and loved everything that college offered while taking full advantage of living close to campus in VDC, playing intramural sports for his fraternity, and helping plan campus-wide events such as Wayzgoose and Reggaefest as an ASUCI intern.

Anxious to take on even more responsibility, Teller applied that spring to be the ASUCI Concerts Commissioner, beating out candidates that had worked in the office for two or even three years.  With his internship with Athletics, his fraternity, his new role in ASUCI, and a house on the much sought after Balboa Peninsula, his third year was looking perfect.

“Cancer wasn’t even in my head,” said Teller.

After a summer spent planning concerts for the upcoming school year, working at a summer camp, and working on sports-related projects for Athletics, the doctors noticed an abnormality during a routine scan in August.  This time the doctors said that the spot was small and that the Tellers could safely wait three months before having it checked again.

In that time, Ben planned and executed concerts during Welcome Week and Shocktoberfest and was in the midst of planning the first ever paid show at the Bren Events Center in UC Irvine history.

After waiting for the holidays to have another scan, Ben was faced with the same devastating news he had heard two summers before.

“I had to give up everything,” said Ben.  “I worked so hard to get my life back on track, and cancer just took it away from me.”

No school meant relinquishing his internships, jobs, and schedule, and handing over the reigns on the paid concert.

Chemotherapy was no longer the only option for Ben as he now needed what is called an Autologous stem cell transplant.

“I didn’t really know what it was, and I didn’t really care,” recalls Teller.

Before the transplant Ben needed two or three more cycles of chemotherapy that were, as he explained, 10 times harsher than before.

That March, Ben prepared for the transplant when he learned that it would be thirty days of living in a bubble.  Patients’ immune systems are so weak during that time that the common cold could be deadly.

The procedure was successful, and even after cancer his second time around, Ben was unphased.

After a month and a half of rest, Ben went back to working at Johnny Rockets.  While his parents were hesitant, the doctors told Ben that everything was looking good, and Ben was ready to hit the ground running.

“I was still young and invincible,” said Ben.  “Cancer wasn’t going to stop me. I thought, ‘That’s it, it’s over.’”

Ben picked up right where he left off going into his fourth year.  He enjoyed his room in Newport and was hired again as the Concerts Commissioner.

“Cancer took so much away from me that I’m going to go live my life to the fullest right now,” he thought then.

Despite waking up with nightmares about procedures, if he was ever fearful of what cancer might steal from him again, he never let it show.

After a memorable fourth year, that June, Ben was sitting on the couch with his Mother when he said, overcome with emotion, “Fuck Cancer.”

Now, Ben was angry, mad, and in denial in the face of the disease.

After working tirelessly to lead the life he wanted to lead, cancer threatened to take it all away once again.

The scan had revealed enlarged lymph nodes, a characteristic of Hodgkins lymphoma, and Teller shares that this is the first time he allowed himself to go online and Google his disease, he wanted to know how to shrink lymph nodes.

After weeks of an incredibly strict diet another scan in August revealed that everything had shrunk in half.

“I don’t know what you did,” said his doctor, “but it worked.”

Due to his determination to follow the diet that in turn shrunk the lymph nodes, Ben started his fifth year at UCI that fall. However, unlike his previous four years, he took a small step back, afraid of being pulled out once again due to cancer.

As a scan that December revealed, the cancer was now in his liver, his neck, and his spleen.  Ben needed an allogeneic mud bone marrow transplant.

Teller spent his last two quarters of his undergraduate year and that summer knowing what lay ahead.

The procedure this time “was a whole other ballgame:” seven days with a fever, 31 days in the hospital, and 100 days confined at home.

The drugs would cause hallucinations and Ben swears that he once saw Mickey Mouse walking on his arm.

After four months, Ben said that he finally began to feel like himself and awaits the next scan, nervous yet hopeful.

“I have faith that [the transplant] worked,” said Ben.

Sporting his lime green Cuck Fancer T-shirt with a Cuck Fancer bracelet on his wrist, Teller is more energetic than ever.

This week, just months after his last procedure, Teller, along with AEPi and ASUCI, is hosting a weeklong fundraiser for Cuck Fancer for the second year in a row on the UC Irvine campus April 7-11.

Consisting of a Beach volleyball tournament on Sunday, an “atomic wing eating contest” on Monday, a “swab for the cure” on Tuesday, a “Fighting For” chalkboard on Wednesday, and a venue event on Thursday night, Ben wants to raise awareness for young adult cancer.  As Cuck Fancer promotes, “It’s how you wear it.”

While this will be the second year Cuck Fancer partners with “Be the Match” on Tuesday, last year of the 88 people swabbed, an unheard of four matches have since been found, meaning that four lives were saved thanks to the combined efforts of Cuck Fancer and Be the Match.

With a goal of involving everyone on the UCI campus, Teller has dreams of taking Cuck Fancer to colleges around the nation.

Ben’s dedication and passion for Cuck Fancer has brought him to people like Will Ferrell, who awarded Teller with a scholarship to return to school.  Ben has worked with Stand Up To Cancer and fights daily to be a voice for young adult cancer survivors.

What cancer can’t take away are relationships and aspirations. With admirable goals for Cuck Fancer and a dream of being an ESPN analyst one day, regardless of the fact that Ben “made cancer his bitch” three times, Teller has always been an inspiration.

“I want to raise a family,” he said.  “I want to play catch with my kid, I want to have a career, I want to put this behind me.  It seems like it’s getting further away, but it’s still there.  I feel that I’m more normal that I’ve been in a long time, and I really more than anything want a normal life.”

As someone incredibly involved in school both socially and academically, as someone that managed to graduate in less time that the standard 12 quarters in the midst of a life threatening disease, as someone that brushes elbows with stars like Halle Berry, Scarlet Johansson, and Ellen Degeneres at events, and as someone making strides in the cancer world for young adults, Teller is anything but normal.

While it was an ugly day when Ben, fed up, finally blurted out “Fuck Cancer” in light of a third diagnosis, thanks to Ben, it is a beautiful day filled with hope when a young adult cancer survivor now hears the words, “Cuck Fancer.”