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Learning Dignity Through Cancer: 6 Keys to Overcome Adversity in School

On most Valentine’s Days, teenagers are usually blushing because some cute boy or girl has given them a rose or some sort of gift and pops the question, “Will you be my Valentine?” Ricky Stafford. Instead of being asked this question, he was told he had leukemia.

I couldn’t imagine the thoughts running through his mind at that time “I don’t have cancer! This can’t be real. Why me?” The biggest question I probably ask myself would be “Will I die?” I know, scary.

I met Ricky in the Fall of 2015 as I was making a shift in my career and moving schools. I coached basketball and was joining the program with a great friend and coach who invited me to join his program. When first introduced to the team and to Ricky it was never mentioned that Ricky was dealing with and recovering from cancer.

Ricky Fighting cancer while in Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Ricky Fighting cancer while in Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Ricky was an outgoing, hard-nosed competitor while on the court, something he definitely got from his parents who were both great athletes after getting to know them. Off the court, Ricky was humble, soft spoken, and a great student. You would have never thought he had cancer. He carried himself well and was kind, giving and loved to serve people. It wasn’t until we started having open gyms that I found out he had cancer because he couldn’t play basketball until he was cleared by his doctors to get back on the court. When I found out I never dug too deep into asking about his cancer because I already saw what type of kid he was and knew when he came back he would be a great addition to the team. All I tried to do was build a great relationship and get to know him as best I could.

Unfortunately what Ricky didn’t understand is that the player he once was would be different than the one he was going to be because of the battle he had in front of him. For a year he was already at war with his leukemia going through chemo and all the complicated medical treatments that come with trying to beat this nasty disease. He seemed upbeat, optimistic, and enthusiastic about his return. He and all his teammates were definitely excited.

Then the new battle began when his doctor cleared him to play and he was ready to jump back in and go full on the basketball court. Of course full go for a kid and full go for his parents were two very different concepts. So we had to make sure all coaches, parents and Ricky were on the same page. The road back was slow and steady but intense because Ricky loved the game of basketball and wanted it so bad. What he did not understand was that his body had gone through so much and it wouldn’t allow him to do what he once was able to do. While conditioning, lifting and playing in pickup games, he was still taking pills to overcome the cancer in his weakened state.

Ricky and Alexis taking pictures before Prom while Ricky is recovering during cancer treatments. Ricky and Alexis Met while both undergoing treatment for cancer at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Ricky and Alexis taking pictures before Prom while Ricky is recovering during cancer treatments. Ricky and Alexis Met while both undergoing treatment for cancer at Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, Utah.

His body was broken, his mind fighting the disease and he was trying to put the pieces of his life together. From the outside I realized there were six intangibles that he was living by to help him fight for his life.

We call it SCHAPE. It is an acronym used at Point Guard College basketball camp. I observed and watched as they put it into play to hold campers accountable for their goals. I decided to use it and build my own version of it. I told myself I would use it as a coach and definitely put it into play when I had the opportunity to become a head coach again. From the moment I saw Ricky going through his trail I knew he was SCHAPEing his life right before his team, his parents, his coaches and his entire school eyes. He was showing dignity for himself and those he came in contact with because he understood how life was so precious and that his life was in a vulnerable state and he wasn’t going to let himself die.

He showed an immense amount of Spirit (“S” in SCHAPE). We are not talking about religious spirit but just a spirit of life. In 1999 in the article “Evoking the Spirit of Education” for Educational Leadership for the Center of Courage and Renewal, Parker J Palmer (1999) writes about spirit:

We need to shake off the narrow notion that “spiritual” questions are always about angels or ethers or must include the word God. Spiritual questions are the kind that we, and our students, ask every day of our lives as we yearn to connect with the largeness of life: “Does my life have meaning and purpose?” “Do I have gifts that the world wants and needs?’ “Who and what can I trust?” “How can I rise above my fears?” “How do I deal with suffering, my own and that of my family and friends?” “How does one maintain hope?” “What about death?”

These are the very questions I believe Ricky was thinking when it came to spirit. Though I know Ricky had Christian beliefs these are questions all students ask regardless of religion. Spirit is such a need for your students to help them get over the difficult times in their lives especially now during this day of COVID-19 pandemic. Spirit helps evolve one’s need for dignity. Spirit drives oneself and others’ dignity.

Ricky knew his life meant something and it was valuable and worth living. Nothing was going to get in the way of that and he was determined to get back on the court and do what he loved.

Ricky had the Courage to communicate (“C” in SCHAPE). Ricky wasn’t afraid to tell us as coaches what he was going through so we could understand the difficulty he was going through.

There was a time in practice where he came to me and asked if he could run to the bathroom. I told him “there was no need to, just go.” He flat out told me with a smile “Coach,I just pooped my pants, the life of cancer,” and we both just started cracking up. He was not afraid to let us know things like this that might have been embarrassing to most but not to him. This was his life and he embraced it. There was no way we could help him in his journey if he didn’t have the courage to speak. And because I respected that and he respected himself, he was strong for it. It made hard times seem a little easier.

Ricky and Alexis fighting cancer together.
Ricky and Alexis fighting cancer together.

He was a Hustler and Hustled in life (H” in SCHAPE). The kid would give everything he had in every drill he did because he knew tomorrow wasn’t promised. He would get done with a drill and just lay on the ground exhausted. He would barely have energy to go again but mustard everything he could to finish what he started. We had to stop him and tell him “no” on many occasions. It would be a battle to get him to listen. He was stubborn when it came to trying to slow him down. Every day for him was a battle to win the day. He wasn’t going to let cancer beat him. Some days he did have to give in but he knew it was only for a moment and when he had the energy, it was back to full go again.

His Attitude (“A” in SCHAPE) was priceless. I have never had to fight cancer and will never understand it. To wake up and go day in and day out with a contagious smile, full of life and an infectious aura that illuminated was special to be around. This reminds me of a quote that came from Tom Stoppard the famous play-writer and screenwriter. “A healthy attitude is contagious, but don’t wait to catch it from others. Be a carrier.” Ricky always carried an attitude of gratitude for life and you could feel it.

Passion (“P” in SCHAPE) was Ricky’s M.O. He was an emotional player and rightfully so. What he loved to do was taken from him and not of his choice. He didn’t ask for this to happen so he poured his soul into the game because it was the time he had to not think about his cancer and he could be Ricky the basketball player, not Ricky the kid who has cancer, though that is what many were saying. The court was where he could be free. Passion gives you strength when you are in dire need to overcome something difficult. We are in difficult times and your passion is what drives you. If you are doing what you love for the most part it helps remove the pain and suffering which allows you to respect and honor yourself and feel the dignity you need. When you do, people also respect, honor and see your light that helps them to continue to get them through their trying time.

Simon Sinek (2010), an expert on leadership, explains “There are 2 ways to inspire human behavior. You can manipulate it or you can inspire it.” Passion is what inspires it. Being precise in what we do, how we do it and most importantly why we do it inspires those to follow their passion to be their best selves. Passion breeds purpose and that is dignity.

Lastly what Ricky gave was his absolute best Effort (“E in SCHAPE). Ricky realized the only way he would beat this cancer is by giving his best. Examples like never missing his medication and to never miss a practice even if he couldn’t play. That even after barely twisting his ankle and dealing with the excruciating pain while he screams “I hate cancer.” He would still get up in the toughest of moments and be an outstanding teammate.

Anything less could mean his life. He knew in order for this body to become strong he had to challenge it. To never give in mentality, though I’m sure he had his doubt as we all have in our lives. He pushed his mind, body and spirit to the brink because he knew there are results that come when you give of yourself to be the best version of yourself. That is how you build dignity. That is how you make yourself and others feel that what they are doing is meaningful. That is how you get out the dark and find the light of dignity and find the light of dignity for others.

As Ricky graduated high school and he continued living his life his cancer returned. With his grit and determination he beat cancer again. He wound up marrying a young lady he met in his first bout with cancer that was fighting cancer as well.

Ricky and Alexis: both cancer survivors, happily married after surviving cancer.
Ricky and Alexis: both cancer survivors, happily married after surviving cancer.

They both live their lives without fear and with faith and from my perspective, it’s because they SCHAPE their lives each day.

We all yearn for Dignity. We all want to be respected, valued and feel important. We all want to have meaning and feel a part of something bigger than ourselves . This is what SCHAPE can do for you and for students. No one ever succeeded without the power of dignity. If you focus on this daily and make each intangible better each day you will build better relationships, better programs, and better people. You can and will build a shelter for the rainy days that will come as John Wooden the legendary coach from UCLA would say. They will come. We all will someday encounter difficulties.

So be sure to SCHAPE each day. SCHAPE yourself, others and your environment and watch yourself and those around you soar. It’s a great feeling to feel dignified. Ricky certainly did that for me and all those in his school during his time there. I am grateful for these wonderful lessons we can all learn to build dignity within our lives.

This article is available and can be accessed in Spanish here.

Palmer, Parker J (1999).  Evoking the Spirit in Public Education. Retrieved from

Sinek, Simon (2010). How great leaders inspire action. Retreived from

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Khalil Sikander
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Khalil followed his dream of playing college basketball where it led him West to play college basketball for Southern Utah University. A 2x Head Women’s Basketball Coach in Utah as well as the 2016 high school physical education teacher of the year in Utah, he is currently teaching at Orem Jr. High in Orem, Utah. An interesting fact about Khalil is that he is a Girl Dad of four girls.

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