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In the Book Episode 16: "Rebounding from Cancer with the Book of Mormon: Ricky Stafford"

Episode Transcript

“Rebounding from Cancer with the Book of Mormon” with Ricky Stafford

Rebecca: [00:00:00] You said there were times where you just felt pretty mad and you were frustrated. Can you give a specific example when you felt that way?

Ricky: My dad was a professional athlete, so I wanted to be a professional athlete.

And right around ninth grade is right around when I thought I was really finding my mojo. I was as tall as I am now, I was starting to get athletic, my body was starting to figure things out, you know, a six foot two, six foot three freshman in high school was not bad, and my body was still growing, I hadn't even touched puberty yet, so I was like, ooh, I'm gonna be good at this thing. So when I got cancer, I was ticked. I was really upset, cause I'm like, “What the heck? I'm getting to the fun part.”

Rebecca: It's been a decade since Ricky Stafford was in the hospital with leukemia for the first time. [00:01:00]

While he was on his mission in Boston, Massachusetts, it relapsed.

Ricky: I taught more about the Book of Mormon in the hospital when I got cancer than I did my entire eight months serving in a mission.

Rebecca: I'm Rebecca Devonas, and this is In The Book.

This is a podcast where we flood the earth with testimonies of the Book of Mormon.

Ricky: When we were sitting in the doctor's office and after we had the blood tests done and everything like that, he took my dad back first, and then they brought my mom and I in and my dad was in full tears. He says, “Son, you have leukemia, you have cancer.” And at the time, as a 15 year old kid, you don't know exactly what to think.

And so my instinct was, well, Am I gonna die? I said, “Am I gonna die?” And you'd hope that your dad, who you've looked up to your whole life, and your idol's like, “You're gonna be fine. And [00:02:00] he's like, “I don't know.”

And so that's when it really set in for me, I was like, Oh crud. My dad doesn't know. My mom's crying next to me. I'm crying. What the heck's happening? Oh, and by the way, I can't play basketball anymore? This is dumb.

Rebecca: I want to take a few seconds and try to picture with you what it might be like to get that news.

What would you be thinking?

What would you be feeling?

And I guess most importantly, what would you do next?

Ricky: I remember when I got told in the clinic here in Orem that I had cancer. They're like, “There's a bed ready for you at Primary Children's Hospital. You go home, pack up, drive up there to the hospital.”

So we drive home, I packed up some clothes, and I had half an hour.

And I remember sitting there in the backseat of my parents car, my mom's in front, my dad's driving, they're holding hands, and I'm looking out the window, and I just remember going through every single memory, every single experience that I've ever had in my life, sitting there thinking about it, Okay, I had a pretty fun life. If I were to [00:03:00] die, you know, I had cool experiences and all that stuff.

Rebecca: So can you describe what it was like to have cancer?

Ricky: Cancer is not easy. It's intense, it's stressful. And I think the thing that gets overlooked is how difficult it can be, not just for the individual, but for everybody else involved.

As a 15 year old kid, you're not worried about anybody else. So I didn't remember the fact that my dad was working two jobs to make ends meet. I didn't remember the fact that my mom was there every single day trying to be there when she could and had seven other kids at home. I'm worried about myself in the hospital trying to survive, but other people are affected by it. And I think that’s one of the biggest stresses and the biggest things to work through is that cancer isn't just an individual adventure. One individual might be working through the illness, the sickness of it, but everybody else involved is very much involved and has to deal with the same type of trauma and the same type of stress and the same type of [00:04:00] anxiety.

As far as describing it, I don't know that there's a great way of sharing that because you still know that you're yourself, right? So mentally, you're like, Hey, I'm still Ricky, right? Or hey, I'm still so and so, but physically, you're like, I am not Ricky. Right, ou've got chemo running through your body, you've got all these different medications and drugs happening, you're on pain meds, and so,you know you're not the same physically.

And then mentally, you sit there and it's like you know how your body is supposed to react, what you're supposed to think, but then you can't think straight. They call it chemo brain.

I think one of the challenges with that is just trying to stay as normal as you can. But the reality of it is that's your normal now, right? You never go back to normal, even post cancer life. If you come through. And so, the normal that you expect is gone. And your new normal is surviving and fighting every single day.

Spiritually I knew something was [00:05:00] wrong, and I think the spirit and the body are connected so deeply. So deeply. So when you don't feel good physically, it's really hard to feel good spiritually, and if you don't feel good spiritually, I could promise you you're not gonna feel good physically.

Rebecca: I asked Ricky what was on his mind when he was in the hospital.

What was his focus or his goal?

What was his why?

What was his reason for pushing through?

Ricky: Let's go back to the fact that I'm 15 years old. So my priority was basketball, right?

We have that phase when we're teenagers where we don't think we need God. And I don't think it's an intentional, I don't want you God, get out of my life. It's more of just a subconscious, other things are more important. And you prioritize those things.

And so, my parents have told me that I was cocky and other people have told me I was cocky because I was good. And I knew it, and I let everybody know that. And so I neglected the things that helped me stay humble and helped me stay happy. And it made me be somebody [00:06:00] that I didn't know I was being, but I didn't want to be.

I remember the very first conversation I had with my doctor. His name is Dr. Fair, Doug Fair. I love the man to death. He's still there, I still talk to him. He has been tremendous in my process and I'm grateful for him, but I had beef with him within like the first 30 seconds of knowing him because he comes in and he's explaining my type of cancer and all the different little side things that it has attached to it; it's actually the best type of cancer to have but you have this thing called Philadelphia chromosome which makes it the worst type of this type of cancer to have and right?

He's going through all these different things and then he you know, I'm sitting here like, I don't care, when can I play basketball again? And he goes, “You'll be lucky to play basketball Ever again in high school, maybe by your senior year,” I was like, Oh, it's on. I'll take that challenge. And so for me, the process should be, I'm trying to get healthy. But in my eyes, I was like, Screw that. I'm going to get healthy n because I want to be healthy. I'm going to get healthy just to [00:07:00] show them that I can go back and play basketball, right.

Rebecca: But something was about to happen that would shift his mindset dramatically.

Months into the process, the cancer had shrunk. Ricky remembers the doctor coming in and pulling out a whiteboard. On the whiteboard, he drew a square. And a line right through it. He kept the top half white and with a black marker, filled in the bottom half. Then in the middle he kind of fuzzed it out so it appeared gray

Ricky: and he says, “You know, up here in the white is where we'd like you to be. Down here in the black is not good and that means we have to switch paths and all that stuff.” And he’s like, “We usually by this point in the process, four or five months in with all this chemo. We can see pretty clearly whether you're up here in the white, and we can move forward, or if you're here in the black, and we need to change plans.”

And then he points to the gray area, and he says, “and you're somewhere in this awkward gray area, and we don't know what to do.” And this was on a Friday. [00:08:00] And he's like, “So what we're going to do, we're just going to stick to the process over the weekend. Monday we'll check back in. If anything's changed, we'll let it be that way.”

Rebecca: Ricky said that from Friday to Monday, he had two cornerstone moments to his life and testimony.

Ricky: My dad came and gave me a blessing and I had a conversation with my mom.

So my dad comes to me and he gives me this blessing. And in the blessing, God reinforces, “Hey, I love you. I'm proud of you.” And then God gives me a choice. And he gives me the choice of you can choose to keep your physical body, or you can choose spiritual protection for the eternities.

And I understood what that meant. I was going to keep living or I was going to move on and I wasn't going to survive, and then I was going to go have a testimony and be safe and with the Lord.

And he said that I get to [00:09:00] choose. One of the other things that I mentioned is that If I chose to keep my physical body Satan's temptations would be very real in my life, and so I sat there and I thought about it, not really understanding the weight that this decision really had. I learned later on the importance of that.

Then my mom came to me. She had this conversation with me. She's like, “Buddy, what are you praying for?” Usually kids lose their hair pretty quickly with chemo. I still had a full head of hair. And the nurses were like, “Wow, we're impressed, usually kids don't have their hair this long” and all that stuff. Yeah, I feel really good about myself, you know, trying to keep whatever normal I can. You know, I have cancer. I don't want to lose my looks too. I was already swelling up and getting zits on my face from the treatment and just didn't look great. I was like, I can't lose my hair too.

And my mom's just like, “What are you praying for?”

I'm just kind of sitting there in the bed, and she's like, “Buddy, are you [00:10:00] praying to keep your hair?”

“Yeah.”

She's like, “Have you prayed at all to get healthy?”

I was like, “No.”

And so I sat there and I said, Okay, I'm ready for this, and so I made the decision to get better. I chose my physical body and mind you, at the time, I was still, I shouldn’t say, skeptical about God, but I definitely didn't lean on him the way I needed to. I didn't lean on the scriptures the way I needed to.

But because I was weak and I was struggling at the time and I needed some extra help, this is the first scripture that really stuck out to me and was on my missionary plaque. I still remember the room that it happened in and I still remember the way that the layout was. And I would sit in my bed and I would play on my laptop, and then I would have my scriptures on my little tray table thing that they fed me on and they had stuff on.

We're going to go to Ether 12, and everybody knows it, and the ones that are listening to this are probably going to recite it before I even read it out loud.

And if men come unto me, I will show unto them their [00:11:00] weakness. I give unto men weakness that they may be humble. And my grace is sufficient for all men that humble themselves before me. For if they humble themselves before me and have faith in me, then will I make weak things become strong unto them. (Ether 12:27)

If they humble themselves before me and have faith in me. are two things, not just one. I was willing to do one at the time, but I realized that I was falling short.

And so, taking that into consideration, I sat there and I prayed over the weekend, and I was like, Okay, I've had to humble myself. My life's not the same, but I really haven't had to exercise my faith, and so I prayed harder than I ever had in my entire life. I was like, God, this is the decision I've made.

So Friday, Saturday, Sunday rolls around, Monday comes. They take my labs early in the morning. They say, we don't know what [00:12:00] happened, but miraculously, you're up here in the white now. So we're gonna continue the way that it is and we don't have to make these crazy adjustments that would have altered my life and my physical body for sure.

And so that is, that moment right there was when I gained my testimony of God and when I gained my testimony of prayer. And I knew without a doubt from that point forward, and I haven't doubted it since then.

I was really in desperate need at that time. And forgot to consider a 15-year-old boy who really wanted to play basketball and his dreams really touched me and from then on out, I tended to get a little more, more humble. I wasn't as cocky. I started to appreciate my life and the gifts that I'd been given and that kind of shaped and been the foundation for my life since then.

 

Rebecca: Cancer free, Ricky left for his mission to Boston, Massachusetts in April of [00:13:00] 2017 while all of his friends were finishing up high school.

Ricky: I loved my mission, had a lot of fun.

I always knew I wasn't going to serve a full two years on my mission. My patriarchal blessing hints to some specific instances that happen. One of those mentions that I'm going to have one mission president. Well, my mission president that was there when I showed up, his mission was going to be done before I hit my 24 month mark. But it outlines a few more things. And the very last piece was, “your mission president is going to trust you.”

And so I remember going into my last transfer and I had just come off a high. I'm loving my life, and having fun. I was a district leader and loving to serve with all these companions and go on all these exchanges and stuff. Really catching a groove.

Rebecca: And then the time for interviews with the mission president rolled around again.

Ricky: So I remember sitting there in the interview with him and knowing where my mission's gone [00:14:00] so far.

I'm sitting there and we're kind of staring at each other,just straight eye to eye, knee to knee, just right up in each other's grill. President Miller, if you're listening, I'm still bitter at you for this. He but he looks at me and he says, “Elder Stafford,” and he paused. And in my mind, I was like, don't you dare say what you're about to say next. Don't do it. He says, “I trust you.” And right then and there, I knew my mission was coming to a close.

For some reason when missionaries go out on missions, they either get really happily fed, nice way of saying it, they gain a little bit of weight, or their bodies slim down and get really skinny. Well for some reason I got huge, in like a physical stature way. I weighed 25 pounds more than when I left for my mission, but it was all like muscle, healthy body. I don't know how that was happening, but I was big and so I knew something was wrong with my body, but I didn't feel it physically because I'm like, look at me, I'm in the best [00:15:00] shape I've ever been in my entire life and then getting towards the end of the transfer, every night was a little bit harder. And I got to the point where I would go to sleep right at bedtime, and then by 1 o'clock I'd sweat through all my garments, through all my blankets, through all my bed sheets and everything like that. So I'd go and change, jump in bed, throw a towel on the bed, because I didn't want to change it, right? And just the same process over and over again. And then I got exhausted by that, so every single night that same thing would happen. I'd peel the sheets off, I'd go and just sit in the bath from 2:30, 3 o'clock till 6:30 when it was time to wake up and just was like so exhausted.

I was like, what's going on with my body, right? And the wintertime was creeping up, so I was like, Maybe I've got a serious case of the cold or something like that. Well then that last week starts up, so I had a checkup because of my cancer, right? I had to go in regularly to see how things were doing.

Rebecca: Ricky's checkup was that week on a Friday. By the time it was Thursday night, [00:16:00] it dawned on him that the cancer was back.

Ricky: It just hit me right then and there, in bed, the cancer's back, and I have my appointment in the morning, so I wasn't stressed or anything like that. I'm gonna go to the doctor, this is what's gonna happen.

We go to the appointment and like in a movie scene, the doctor comes ripping in, rips the door open, papers are flying by him, “Your cancer's back!” I just sat there, I was like, “Yeah, I know.”

And so, that's how I led into the second time of having cancer. The cancer had increased like 8 to 10 times than it was the first time I had it.

Rebecca: Ricky was immediately admitted to a hospital in New York.

Ricky: When I got to the hospital in New York, I'm not lying to you, the doctor comes in and he says, without asking any other questions, “Tell me about this book that you're teaching about.”

Rebecca: So he knew!

Ricky: He knew. I was not ready.

And then for the entirety of my stay there, people kept asking me about the Book of Mormon.

Rebecca: Ricky's relapse with cancer happened on December 1st of 2017. He spent the next month and a half in New York because he was told if he didn't start treatment right away, the cancer would likely have killed him on the plane flight home.

During that time, Ricky and his mom befriended another family in the hospital. Moses, another cancer patient, and his mom Debora.

Ricky's mom and Debora rapidly became friends.

Ricky: Moses was my age, he was going through cancer, and his mom was there taking care of him like my mom was.

And they just started talking, and what's funny is that they were actually building a Lego set of the Salt Lake Temple together.

She gave her a book of Mormon. She took her to church on Sundays.

Long story short, Debora got baptized. And so, for me, that was enough for me to get cancer and to go down there because Debora was baptized.

Moses died [00:18:00] shortly after, but she has an understanding and a knowledge that she gets to see her baby boy again.

That was one of the blessings and takeaways for me, you know, why did I get cancer the second time? So many reasons, so many things to learn, but, the thing that, that for me did it was, God cares about the one. One is important, so if, if I have to get cancer to meet the one, so be it, I'll do that.

Rebecca: Years earlier, when he had been at Primary Children's Hospital in Salt Lake, Ricky had met another patient named Lexi. They had gone on some dates as teenagers and hung out, and then she flew out to visit him when he was in the hospital in New York.

Halfway through the month of January, Ricky returned home to Utah where he continued treatment, got engaged to Lexi in February, and by September of 2018, they were married.

Ricky: She was 18, I was 19 at the [00:19:00] time. I was still working through all the aftermath of my cancer again. And she was still recovering and getting to her fully healthy self as good as she could. And we were like, You know what, let's go for it. We're young. We don't know what the heck life's going to throw at us, but let's make it work. And so we took that leap and yeah, started going on life.

I am so grateful I made that decision and I'm so grateful that she was willing to spend time with me. So the fact that she was willing to say, Yeah, I like you enough to spend time with you like this and get married to you. I feel super blessed, because the truth is she didn't have to. I mean, let's look at the facts: 19 years old, no education, didn't have a job, just got cancer again for a second time. As far as candidates go, I don't know if I'm winning the race, as far as good potential husbands,

It taught me the importance of families, right? Reinforcing that. It's one thing if you're a part of a family, it's another thing when you have your own family, right? It takes on a new meaning. [00:20:00] But then it also taught me how to love deeper and better and become more like my Savior, Jesus Christ. And I learned how to also be loved by other people better.

So he made it to cancer free, which nobody with her cancer, to my knowledge, had ever accomplished. And then on that same day that we were celebrating her cancer free party, she called the hospice company and said, “Hey, I'm in a lot of pain. I'm hurting. I would like some extra help,” and then after three and a half years of us being together, she passed away.

Came into the world kickin butt, left kickin butt. She was awesome.

Rebecca: Ricky has gone on to play professional basketball overseas and married his now wife Kylie ten months ago.

I kept thinking throughout the interview with Ricky about how much he went through in just 10 years. [00:21:00] He didn't wait one minute to live life to the fullest, no matter what was going to come.

Ricky: Everyone asks what's your favorite book? I always say the Book of Mormon. Sounds cheesy, sounds corny. There's no other book that I read like this book. I'm eternally not only indebted to my loving Heavenly Father and Savior, but to the Book of Mormon because of how it literally helped me make a life changing and life saving decision as a 15-year-old boy.

Rebecca: If you have a testimony of the Book of Mormon, send it to inthebook@scripturecentral.org.

I'm Rebecca Devonas, and you've been listening to In The Book.