After enjoying visits from therapy dogs during treatment for testicular cancer, a student pilot decides to volunteer to transport pets needing rescue, shelter or adoption.
When Brandon Stevenslooks back at his treatment for testicular cancer, he remembers the bright spots in that dark time. With support from his family, friends and hospital volunteers, he was able to stay positive — especially when he was visited by the four-legged members of his care team.
“They had a lot of therapy dogs, mostly labs and golden retrievers. Just seeing a dog in the hospital when you’re going through these treatments cheers you up a lot,” recalls Stevens, who, after receiving his diagnosis shortly after graduating high school, underwent surgery and then chemotherapy in the fall of 2015. He was treated at the UCHealth Cancer Care and Hematology Clinic in Greeley, Colorado.
The next year, grateful to be in remission and studying to become a pilot, Stevens felt inspired to help others in need, just as his supporters had helped him. Remembering the therapy dogs, he started volunteering for Pilots N Paws, a nonprofit organization that transports pets to facilitate their rescue, shelter or adoption. Stevens has earned his private pilot’s license at Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus in Salina, where he is a senior expecting to graduate in the spring with a Bachelor of Science in aeronautical technology and a minor in aviation safety; he participates in the volunteer program on weekends. In fact, he uses his own money to rent planes and fuel them up for the trips, the school has reported.
“Everyone has done so much for me, and I had a lot of exposure to good people who were going out of their way and not being paid to help me, so it’s natural to want to do that. I can’t think of a better way to do it than to give back to the community,” he said. “I can’t imagine living and not (making) some type of contribution to something larger than myself.”
It only took one mission to get Stevens hooked on delivering dogs. “It was through a Husky rescue mission that was sending the dog to a new owner,” he said. “We delivered it to a family, and to see the kids’ eyes light up as they saw the dog — that’s what really sealed the deal for me.”
Stevens feels connected to the organization not only because he has owned dogs, but because he hasn’t forgotten how much the hospital’s therapy dogs helped him through his treatments, especially chemotherapy, which he found both terrifying and draining. “The sheer amount of chemicals that were being put in was overwhelming and scary,” Stevens said. “There’s a lot of uncertainty because you don’t know how you’re going to react or exactly how it’s going to feel.” With chemotherapy scheduled every other week, it turned out that he alternately felt fine — and then terrible.
What most surprised Stevens was the mental fog, or “chemo brain,” that he experienced during treatment.
“I would be out with my family and I couldn’t really comprehend what was going on around me,” he said.
“I just wasn’t there mentally. ... I thought something was wrong with me for a while, because I couldn’t remember some things, and my brain was just a little slower than I remembered it being.”
Although the problem has lingered, he said it has “gotten better over the years with practice and constantly challenging with puzzles. One of my biggest regrets was not going through more academic exercises while I was going through chemotherapy.”
As a college student in the professional pilot program who studies every day and is striving to earn his aviation ratings, “I have to work longer, because it takes longer for the information to stick,” he said. “I require a little more studying than had I not had cancer. It’s really just persistence and constantly sticking through it.”
Still, it’s important to him to find the time to volunteer. In addition to his work for Pilots N Paws, Stevens and some friends are working to create an aviation-related organization to help children who have cancer.
“The big thing for me when I was going through treatment was having something afterwards to look forward to, seeing the light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.
“One way we could help do that is by introducing kids to aviation and visiting kids who are going through really similar situations and talking with them. We really want to start scheduling visits and then eventually working up to introductory flights to get kids’ minds off what’s going on and open up a little bit of happiness there.”
For Stevens, connecting aviation and volunteerism gives meaning to both.
“A lot of times you work so hard on getting a rating (a certification allowing a student to fly a certain type of aircraft) and you start to feel a little selfish,” he said. “You think ‘Why am I doing this?’ I don’t know if I would have had that mindset before I had cancer, but I think a lot of cancer survivors are the same way and want to give back.”