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College student with cancer wants to return to school in fall
Robert Upchurch fights back the tears as he and his mother Patty, left, thanks everyone for all their help during an acknowledgement meeting at Gainesville State College Tuesday afternoon for the student. He has been fighting cancer and has been unable to attend classes.

For Robert James Upchurch, it’s all about his love of football.

Upchurch, 26, has stage four colon cancer, but he’s holding on to his dreams of completing college and becoming a football coach.
On Wednesday, Gainesville State College President Martha Nesbitt presented Upchurch with a certificate for the 28 credit hours he has completed toward a social science education degree. But to the Upchurch family, it’s just a beginning.

“He’ll be back in the fall,” said his mom Patty Upchurch. “You all don’t know what you did for him and how you touched him. He was so excited when he came home from classes, and you could tell by the way he talked.”

Robert Upchurch’s brother Raphael and a handful of family friends and teachers met in the president’s conference room to honor his work in college. The professors talked about his personality in class and joked about his favorite football teams — the Cincinnati Bengals, the University of Miami Hurricanes and the Gainesville High School Red Elephants.

Upchurch shifted between laughter and tears, excited to see teachers again but emotional about battling cancer.

“Y’all really helped me out in a lot of ways. It’s been hard for me,” Robert said, touching a napkin to each eye. “Everything you said in class, I’ll put toward my life. I’ll never forget what y’all have done.”

Robert didn’t originally intend to attend college. He played football at Gainesville High until he was injured and started work after graduation. Several years later, he decided he wanted to do much more than drive trucks for a living.

“I realized I wanted to do what I really love, which is football, and thought I could help a team win,” he said. After asking his former high school coaches how to achieve his dreams, Robert knew he had to go back to school to be a teacher.

“I was nervous about coming here after being out of school, but it’s so hands-on, and if you have any problems, professors will help, even after office hours,” he said, noting he wants to do the same as a teacher. “The main thing they tell you is they want to make you better, and it’s so true. I read their tips and pointers on my papers and never have a problem with the next assignment.”

But his dreams were halted to fight some tumors. Last June, Robert didn’t have insurance and went to the health department for help. He was placed on a waiting list for the Health Access Initiative, a referral service that helps connect patients with doctors and assists with obtaining some medications and services.

In January, Robert was able to get help. After a CT scan, doctors asked Upchurch to undergo a colonoscopy and found eight tumors on his liver. He was told to expect two more years of life with stage four cancer that is terminal and incurable.

“But they feel good about my youth and think I can handle the chemotherapy,” Robert said Wednesday, just a day after a treatment at Longstreet Cancer Center. “I’m so young to have this type of cancer, and it’s baffling to the doctors.”

After a recent CT scan and fourth cycle of chemotherapy, all the tumors are shrinking. Robert and his mom are determined he’ll be back on campus by the fall.

“He really kept the classes up,” said Douglas Ealey, associate professor of social sciences, who taught Upchurch in political science, religion and leadership development classes. “We’ve had a lot of time to talk in private, and we still hang out on the phone.”

With a Bengals cap on his head and his nickname “Big Rob” tattooed on his forearms, Robert can’t help but smile and laugh, catching up with Ealey about football and basketball players.

“We stay upbeat because we have to,” Patty said. “After devastating news, you can only go up from there. At first it felt like someone punched me in my stomach, but there’s no more dreary and doom and gloom.”

Robert has been offered a volunteer football team position at Gainesville High School and plans to get back on the field as soon as possible, particularly to help teach his brother Raphael, a rising junior heading for a defensive position on the varsity team.

“The coaches taught me how to be a man and inspired me to keep on going,” he said. “I’m going to try to go to the games and talk to the team and tell them to get their heads into the game after class. They have the talent, but academics always has to come first.”

Mom says there’s no doubt he’ll make it back to the field.

“We’re so excited the chemo is working and the tumors are shrinking,” Patty said. “Those suckers are going to shrivel up.”