Skip to main content

Former SDSU Basketball Star Launches Cancer Fund For Students In Crisis

Cameron McCullough, 19, shares his gratitude of being the first recipient of ...

Photo by Katie Schoolov

Above: Cameron McCullough, 19, shares his gratitude of being the first recipient of the Courage Through Cancer Fund, which will allow him to continue his education at San Diego State University, Sept. 6, 2018.

Donning a backpack and determination, Cameron McCullough, 19, looked like any other college student as he walked across San Diego State University at the start of his sophomore year.

“Hopefully in the next three years, I’ll apply to (physical therapy) school and hopefully get in, and that way I’ll have another three years before I can get, say work or my own practice,” said McCullough, who spends his days studying, hanging out with friends and playing club volleyball.

But the tall, blond pre-physical therapy major from Point Loma is carrying a heavier load than most of his 33,000 fellow students. His mom, Schoulee Cones, his only family member, is fighting for her life.

Video by Katie Schoolov

“Two years ago she was diagnosed with stage four cancer, leukemia,” McCullough said. “And then it spread to other places like her hip — she has a deteriorated hip.”

The devastating diagnosis forced his mom, a registered nurse, out of her clinical researcher job. Medical bills piled up and depleted their finances. McCullough’s part-time job didn’t stretch far.

“My mom is so headstrong, it’s crazy,” he said. “And despite everything she’s just like so loving to me,” he said. “She will fight until the end for everything no matter what.”

“Even with her struggles, with the weight of the world on her shoulders,” McCullough added, “she will still always add more so I can weigh less.”

McCullough said he didn’t open up to many people about the anguish he was going through.

“Unfortunately, I’m not as forward about my situation as I should be,” he said.

Until he got a demand for payment notice taped to his dorm room door during his freshman year.

“Saying you have this much due. Pay it or you would have to leave in this certain amount of time,” McCullough recalled. “Getting kicked out, maybe not going to school is a really scary thought.”

It was another overwhelming bump in the road, said McCullough.

“There’s a reason to never give up. No matter how hard life gets, no matter what I’m dealing with at the moment, I’m not gonna quit,” he said.

Photo by Kris Arciaga

Cancer survivor and SDSU Alumni director of development technology, Tammy Blackburn (left), and SDSU sophomore Cameron McCullough talk about the impact of cancer on their lives, Sept. 4, 2018.

At about that same time, Tammy Blackburn, director of development technology with SDSU Alumni, was battling breast cancer that had spread to her lymph nodes. Her year-long treatment impacted her deeply, she said.

“I kept feeling something tugging at my heart about what I was seeing,” Blackburn said. “And I was seeing some incredible things at the cancer center and some things were very sad to me that there were people sitting alone during chemo, and my heart just hurt for them. I wanted them to have a support system and visitors like I did.”

The SDSU alumna and Aztec basketball star from the early 1990s decided she had to do something.

“It’s already difficult enough as it is to deal with cancer. Then you add a financial toll that can oftentimes disrupt an education,” she said. “I know that I can’t change the world but it really hit my heart in a way that I started thinking about — if this is happening, then there must be something happening at San Diego State with our students.” she said. “Our students must be feeling the same pain and anguish because cancer does not discriminate”

Blackburn, who has no children of her own, contacted financial aid administrators to find out how she could help students affected by cancer.

“I’m not doing this because I think I have to, I’m doing this because it’s my calling,” she said.

“My life will forever be left with an indelible mark of a journey that was not easy. I was scared and I didn’t know what was going to happen,” Blackburn said. “But I made it and I want the students and their families to know that they can too.”

Courage Through Cancer

Created by SDSU alumna Tammy Blackburn, the Courage Through Cancer Fund supports students affected by cancer.

Blackburn came up with the idea of creating the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund, named after the doctors who saved her life. She reached out to friends, colleagues and community members who pledged an initial $45,000 as of August.

“That would be accessible to (students) immediately,” she said. “Something they wouldn’t have to apply for and wait to hear if they were a winner of a scholarship, but emergency crisis funds.”

SDSU Financial Aid and Scholarships Director Rose Pasenelli said emergency funds are desperately needed at the university. She coordinates the SDSU Economic Crisis Response Team (ECRT) which stepped in to secure food and some housing costs for McCullough when the group learned of his dire situation.

“Financial aid hasn’t been able to keep up with the growing cost of higher education,” Pasenelli said. “And for a student, even a low-income student who receives grants, there’s still a gap between the cost of attendance and what we can offer in free money grant funding.”

Pasenelli said the number of student crisis cases are on the rise, but not all are extreme like McCullough’s.

“Last year we had 151 students put in ECRT referrals,” Pasenelli said. “This year so far we have 31, and that’s from June through today.”

Tammy Blackburn’s new found purpose in life led her to Cameron McCullough and his mom. Blackburn went to their home last month to give them good news: Cameron was the first recipient of the Courage Through Cancer Fund.

“We’re going to pay your tuition, your fees for fall semester of your sophmore year,” Blackburn said to McCullough, who put his head into his hands and sobbed with tears of joy.

“And we’re also going to be able to pay for your books, your entire slate of your kinesiology and anything for your undergraduate,” Blackburn said, struggling to hold back tears.

Today, their bond remains strong.

“He’s stuck with me whether he likes it or not,” Blackburn said, patting his shoulder. “I think about the day when he’s going to be in Viejas Arena walking across the stage in his cap and his gown, accepting his degree. And we’re all going to be there.”

Cameron McCullough knows his years at SDSU are giving him a lot more than an education.

“It’s taught me to stay focused and humble and through adversity, keep pushing,” he said.

Just like those who are surrounding him, he plans to help others along the way.

Cameron McCullough, 19, is carrying a heavier load than most of his 33,000 fellow students at San Diego State University. His mom, his only family member, is fighting for her life.

Want more KPBS news?
Find us on Twitter and Facebook, or subscribe to our newsletters.

To view PDF documents, Download Acrobat Reader.