"I think the first thing that goes through anyone's mind when they find out they're diagnosed is, 'Am I going to die?'"
Cadet Christopher Ragan overcomes obstacles, the literal and the figurative.
One of his favorite pastimes is climbing the rock wall at The Rec. To him, it's a fun way to exercise. But if you know his life story, it also an appropriate metaphor.
A high schooler in Mesquite, Texas, Ragan didn't know what he wanted to do with his life until the thought of becoming an Army officer crossed his mind. An ROTC scholarship his only option for college, he overcame with effort, and landed at A&M.
"A lot of my friends knew about the Corps, and it's something you hear a lot about," Ragan said. "I really hadn't had a lot of contact with it until I started coming down here. It was a great experience, and it became something I was really excited about.
"It felt really good to be wearing that uniform," he recalled. "It felt like a big achievement that I had gone through my whole high school career, and now this is what I was doing. I was on the path to something."
In October 2004, his path unexpectedly turned.
"It was a swelling under my chin," Ragan said. "I didn't know what it was. I didn't think a whole lot of it, thought it would just go down over time. But it didn't, and in fact, two weeks later, I had another swelling above my collarbone. At that point, I knew something wasn't right.
"It was a huge shock to you because, here I go one day, I'm a perfectly healthy kid with a contract in college, going to commission as an officer in the Army. Then, I find out I have cancer."
Hodgkin's Lymphoma sent Ragan home. "I went back to school, packed up all my stuff, and I hung out with my buddies for a couple days."
But save for a couple trips back to campus and a few visits from fellow cadets, he was apart from his peers at home. Many of his high school friends had also moved on to college. The Mesquite faces Ragan was familiar with were gone.
The medical diagnosis was good for Ragan, though. His professors were kind enough to provide him his classroom materials so he could finish out his semester's work. But the biggest work came when chemotherapy and radiation treatment became his obstacles.
"I really thought I was done at A&M. I was done with the Corps and everything," he recalled.
The climb out of cancer can be steep, but instead of running from the challenge, Ragan ran through it. With encouragement from high school counselors, he decided to build his body up instead of letting the cancer treatment break it down. A lot of his motivation lied in comforting his family and friends through his trials and tribulations.
"I would put on a smile and I would go out and run and do everything I needed to do to make them feel that I was doing OK," he said.
Running became Ragan's escape. "There were times where it would get pretty lonely," he said. "So running was just something, if I was feeling down or out or drained, I would go out and run and it was really helpful.
"It was really hard at first. My first cycle of chemotherapy, you're sick, you don't want to get out of bed, and it took me out for almost a week. I couldn't do anything. Then, the very next Monday, I was out running."
Ragan ran not one, but two half marathons while undergoing chemo and radiation. "The day before my last treatment of chemotherapy, I ran my first half marathon, the Big D Texas Half Marathon in Dallas," he said, "and I finished in two hours, or nine-and-a-half minutes a mile."
By June, he was done with treatment. He had hung tough, but yet another obstacle arose. Cancer had taken his scholarship. He is medically ineligible to be an officer in the Army, his one career dream dashed. So he dreamed again. He dreamed of the Corps.
"I had to get back there," Ragan said. "I had invested so much time into this place that I really wanted to finish out my Corps career."
Ragan took out loans, and is back to finish what he started. He's still trying to figure out what he wants to do post-college. He's just started to consider enlisting in the Army, not the military path he wanted to go down, but at least an option for wearing the nation's uniform. As a Park and Tourism Sciences major, he's also looking into becoming a guide for wildlife adventurers.
But as he ponders where he's going, the reminders of where he's been lie in his dorm, medical bracelets, a radiation mask, and his Corps nickname carved on his door: "The Cancer Kid"
"Most people that think about A&M, one of the things that sticks out in their mind is the Corps and the people in their uniforms," Ragan said, "so that was a great feeling for me to feel like I was representing the university again."
Cadet Ragan runs now for a couple reasons: for charity, to raise money for cancer treatment, and on Fridays, you'll likely see him running off the Quad on campus, along side the men and women he so desperately had to return to.
When asked if A&M and the corps means more now than before, Ragan said, "Oh definitely, it does. I feel like I've had to work a lot harder to get back here, so it definitely is a lot more special and means a lot more to me now."
You can find out more about Christopher Ragan at the official Corps of Cadets website.