A Student’s Battle With Cancer Inspires Him To Give Back
The laminated, nine-page book has a hand-drawn picture of his doctor, with air bubbles around the man that say, “Take This Chemo Son – Is Going To Be Good For You.”
The title reads, “Francisco’s Guide To Chemotherapy.”
Inside, there are 52 chemotherapy tips written by the author, 19-year-old Francisco Lourenco. He advises other patients to eat healthy, keep a positive mentality, press the yellow button on the “beeping machine” to silence it, never lie to doctors and to never eat Wendy’s or Subway because it will make you sick.
While he endured five cycles of chemotherapy and 13 surgeries for Stage 1 lymphoma from March to July, Lourenco hand-wrote and drew his cancer experiences to share with other cancer patients at UF Health, as a therapy for dealing with chemotherapy, he said.
The two books he created – one a guide, the other a cartoon of him asking questions to his doctor – weren’t just for therapeutic reasons. Lourenco had questions doctors couldn’t answer, and these illustrations represented his frustration with the lack of research for cancer in 2015.
Lourenco said right after his last procedure in July, he went to the UF Health Cancer Center to discuss ideas of fundraising for medical research and exposing students to what goes on inside the hospital.
“No one knows … I didn’t even know there are people who are really struggling, people with hard diseases, they’re inside Shands,” he said. “That really opened my mind.”
Lourenco, who is an applied kinesiology and physiology major at Santa Fe College, said he has already started doing small research of his own but isn’t qualified enough. “I don’t have the knowledge [yet],” he said, “But I can help make this more financially possible.”
Carol Nimitz, the senior director of development at UF Health Cancer Center, wrote in an emailed statement, “His dedication to give back is inspiring, and we are grateful for the passion he has for supporting cancer research,” she said. “It was clear we met someone with an important story to tell.”
Laurie Cardona, a 60-year-old Gainesville resident , learned about Lourenco after meeting his mother on a plane early in his diagnosis. While the two haven't met in person yet, Cardona said they email often about ideas for his cancer research.
She said she was surprised by his determination and enthusiasm to give back to the community so soon after his battle with cancer.
“Everything he did impresses me,” she said. “I try to be a person to lean on for those going through cancer … and he is just a better person than I am.”
However, Lourenco doesn’t think he’s a better person for giving back to the cancer community while still in remission. “I don’t think I’m good for thinking about it, I’m only thinking about it because I got sick,” he said. “I admire people who never got sick and are [already] there helping.”
Some of his ideas to help fund and expose cancer research to the Gainesville community involve providing patients with comfort and support, something he didn’t have when he was first diagnosed.
Lourenco said his friends disappeared when he found out the pain in his right arm was more than a pulled muscle from the gym.
“That really, really hit me because I was alone," he said.
And for the first three weeks of his diagnosis, he was alone.
Lourenco is from Brazil, and his family still lives there. He moved to Gainesville in December 2013 with the “American dream of the American life” on his mind, something most Brazilians crave, he said. He didn’t tell his family of his diagnosis at first because he knew they couldn’t afford it, and he didn’t want to go back to Brazil.
When he told his grandparents, they sold every possession they owned, except their home, got tourist visas and moved to Asbury Parks Apartments in Gainesville to take care of their grandson. “I admire them so much,” he said.
Even after moving in with his grandparents, he was worried his health bills would force him to move back to Brazil.
“I wanna stay here because all that I have today, and all the care I had today was because of the United States and the help they gave me,” he said.
His medical expenses were covered by charity donations within the hospital. He had to prove he was an international student, using one of his scholarships as proof – a scholarship he felt he had to maintain while being sick.
Lourenco has three scholarships – the J.C. Casagrande Peace Scholarship from the UF English Language Institute, the Florida Linkage Institute Tuition Exemption Award and the James Gregg Honors Scholarship from Santa Fe – all of which require a 3.5 or 4.0 GPA and provide him a free education.
He said his scholarships were important for him to maintain because they reminded him of the reasons he came to the U.S. in the first place.
In Brazil, he failed three years of high school because of bad habits, influenced by his home life and the difficult relationship he had with his stepfather.“I was at a point of doing only wrong things,” he said. When Lourenco came to Gainesville, he said he "really got into the dream of being here."
Tiffany Walton, a friend of Lourenco’s who stayed with him throughout his treatment, said Lourenco not only fought because he had cancer, but because he felt he had responsibilities to live up to in the U.S.
“I just really see the fighter in him,” the 19-year-old said.
Lourenco said people like Walton, Cardona and UF Health doctors and nurses became his best friends.
“It’s a feeling of friendship that is totally different,” he said.
Lourenco’s motivation for leaving Brazil and powering through cancer treatments is the University of Florida itself. He said when he saw the campus he knew he’d never go back to Brazil.
Lourenco has three more semesters until he can transfer to UF, where he plans to achieve his goals of excelling in classes and maybe becoming a UF cheerleader.
“When I saw UF, it was something crazy because there is no such place in Brazil … only in movies,” he said. “I didn’t know it was possible.”