Barclay White, who starts law school in the fall, was undergoing treatment for cancer when he started his freshman year at Texas Tech.
At Barclay White's first day of freshman orientation at Texas Tech University, a counselor asked the group of incoming Red Raiders to share an interesting fact about themselves.
White had an easy answer and a hard answer. He went for the easy answer. They may be the Class of 2015, but these were strangers then.
“I have an identical twin,” he told the other incoming students.
“Oh, is he here?”
“Yeah, we just look different because he has hair,” White told them. “And someone goes, ‘why don't you have hair?'”
Now came the hard answer.
“Uh, because I have cancer,” the 18-year-old said.
White laughs as he tells the story, remembering how the students scooted away from him as if he was contagious. He reminisces fondly about the handicapped placard he had on his car for most of his freshman year at Texas Tech and unabashedly confesses to using his illness to score sympathy points both with young women and his parents.
Four years ago White, a fourth-generation Red Raider, was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma a month before graduating from Frenship High School.
Today White is working at Texas Tech and preparing for law school in the fall. He
graduated with a degree in agricultural economics in December before spending the
spring semester in Washington, D.C., working with U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway, R-Midland.
His hair is back, his sense of humor is unmarred and the cancer is gone. So is his fear.
“It definitely gave me a drive to make the most of every day,” he said. “Where some students freak out about a grade or whatever, I feel like after going through all that, especially when thinking I could die at 18 years old, you really learn how to take certain things with a grain of salt and learn how to prioritize what really matters.”
Diagnosis and treatment
On Good Friday in 2011 White walked into his family doctor's office. He wasn't concerned.
“I went to the doctor for a persistent cough and it turned out to be a massive tumor in my chest,” he said.
That news jump-started the worst few weeks in his young life. His doctors didn't know exactly what that tumor in his lung was. Their normal tests weren't coming back with the results anyone expected. There was talk of cracking his chest open.
“Those days were hard because the signals that kept being sent back showed this could be something they haven't seen before and they might not be able to cure it,” he said.
After a procedure that included lowering one lung and removing a rib, his doctors got a sample of the tumor. When they learned it was non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, it was comparatively good news, White said. This was treatable.
He started his first round of chemotherapy soon after the diagnosis. He had six rounds, spaced three weeks apart. The first rounds, which took his hair, happened right before orientation. The last round was in the middle of September. He had scans throughout the treatment, each one showing the news they all wanted to hear – the chemo was working.
He also experienced support from all avenues. White's family physician, Dr. Michael Robertson, had been friends with his parents for decades; he was in the room when White and his twin Bryce were born. Robertson baptized White. White's parents worked for him. And he'd found the tumor.
It wasn't just that Robertson was a friend, though. While doing a bloodwork lab in medical school at Texas Tech, Robertson found abnormalities in his blood sample and eventually diagnosed his own leukemia.
“It was such a cool thing having him because he had been through having cancer when you're young and he knew of the emotional burdens it places on you,” Barclay said. “It was great that he was able to walk me through it.”
The good news came in other forms, too. With his immune system nonexistent during the chemo, he lived at home instead of in a residence hall his freshman year. He decided he wanted a roommate anyway – a four-legged one.
“I got a dog that summer,” he said. “My parents didn't want me to have a dog. I begged them: (putting on his saddest face) ‘But Mom, Dad, I have cancer.'
“They would be like, ‘Don't do that to us!' Looking back, I was definitely a toot.”
Becoming part of the Red Raider family
White's worst moment was the day he had a needle biopsy of the tumor. A doctor stuck a large needle between his ribs and extracted a chunk of tumor, which would tell them what was growing in his lung and how to treat it.
But it didn't. The tumor had gotten so big that it was pushing up against its chest and cutting off its own blood supply, leaving a raft of dead tissue that couldn't be diagnosed.
That day also was the day Mark Miller walked into White's room. Miller, a professor of animal and food sciences at Texas Tech, would be White's professor years later. White would sit next to Miller's son in his first college class. That day, however, Miller was just there to pray with White. They'd never met before Miller walked into the room. He'd heard from a friend about this young man fighting cancer.
“I was praying for him and his healing, and God spoke to me and asked me to go to the hospital and pray over him and his healing,” Miller said. “I was asked to tell him that he was going to be OK and that he would be healed.”
He returned to the hospital a few more times, bearing beef jerky and the department's well wishes.
White had another helpful run-in at COWamongus, the department's restaurant. He, his mom and his sister were eating lunch one summer day when they saw Sam Jackson, one of the college's advisers. White's fall schedule was set, but his chemo stretched into September and he worried about being able to keep up. The three approached Jackson, who finished his lunch and invited them to his office, both to redo White's schedule, making it more manageable, and to assure him that yes, he thought White could handle it.
“That was really cool, the department I started in, that being the first glimpse of it,” he said.
He also became a member of President's Select, a group of student ambassadors who help in recruiting and building relationships with alumni and guests. His sister was in President's Select when he started, and she introduced Guy Bailey, president of Texas Tech at the time, to her twin brothers. Bailey encouraged both to apply.
“Dr. Bailey said he wanted to give me something to look forward to and to be excited about, because I wasn't completely sure if I could start college going through the illness,” he said.
Being involved with such an accomplished group of people who looked at him with respect because of what he'd been through helped get him through that difficult first year, Barclay said. He was bald and had gained weight because of the steroids he had to take, but the other President's Select students helped him gain confidence in what he was doing.
“I didn't look like myself, I didn't feel like myself, but being around those students who were so encouraging really helped,” he said.
In the middle of October, with midterms looming and fall break beckoning, White went to the hospital for another scan. All the cancer cells in his body were gone.
“I remember it being a huge relief,” he said. Even though it was the news he expected, hearing it lifted a weight from his mind. “I didn't realize how fatigued and tired I was from before.”
Barclay White, cancer survivor
At 18, White had accomplished something huge and frightening. In comparison to cancer, many other things seemed manageable.
Armed with that perspective, he was elected president of President's Select, was appointed to the Student Government Association executive cabinet, joined Agri-Techsans, a recruiting organization for the College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources and went to Washington, D.C., as an intern for Rep. Conaway,, who is chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.
He's gotten to explore different career paths, switching majors from agricultural science to agricultural economics and now preparing for law school. He might be a lawyer, he said, or he might go into politics or business. He's also thought about international agriculture, working for the World Trade Organization or helping farmers in South America.
While a member of President's Select in 2012, he met homecoming queen Katherine McBee, and the two are still dating three years later. While he gets ready for law school he's working in the Texas Tech University Counsel Office with Ronald Phillips, who earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics before going to the Texas Tech School of Law. White looks at him as a mentor.
“Barclay serves as an inspiration for everyone that has met him,” Phillips said. “He has faced adversities in his life and has always done so with an unbelievably positive attitude and an undeniable will to succeed. We can all learn important life lessons from this young man.”