On Oct. 13, 2014, Mitchell Carrigan’s life took a dramatic turn. It was the day he had surgery to remove a tumor from his brain.
“I was scared but I had hope; I knew all I had to do was push through and things would get better,” Carrigan says now, 30 months after the operation. “I essentially had two options, pushing through this experience and become a better person from it, or saying ‘this is it, if I was supposed to do something great with my life, then I would not have been dealt this card.’”
Carrigan, a first-year student at Allegheny College, has been told he is in full remission after having the grade 2 astrocytoma removed at the Albany Medical Center, near his home in rural Laurens, New York.
Not only did he regain his health, Carrigan returned to high school after three months of recovery. A little more than a year later, he finished as his class valedictorian with a 97.5 average. He delivered his scholarly address to the 26 other members of his graduating class and their families, including his own, in June 2016.
“Mitchell’s ability to embrace his situation, to work hard and find his inspiration to overcome and achieve his goal to become valedictorian is itself truly inspirational,” says his father, John. “We watched Mitchell to meet the challenges head on and conquer them one by one using what was available to him to be able to achieve his ultimate goal — success.”
“To date, the recovery is nothing less than a miracle, and we feel completely blessed by the outcome,” adds his mother, Tabatha. “We share with our kids the analogy that life is a journey, some parts are truly euphoric and some parts are rough as hell. We appreciate the good times and cherish them because they may not last forever, we never know what is around the next bend, but it’s those good memories and experiences that can provide you with comfort when you need it most.”
Carrigan is in his second semester at Allegheny and is considering a double major in environmental science and biology. He has already embraced the College’s commitment to community service, helping raise money for St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital during the fall semester.
Allegheny was one of nine colleges Carrigan considered attending. He narrowed it to two campuses to visit, and ultimately decided to come to Meadville. “Allegheny just felt so inviting,” he says. “I felt right at home. It has a beautiful campus and is known countrywide for its environmental science programs.”
Getting to this point wasn’t easy, though.
Before his cancer diagnosis, Carrigan says he lived a normal life for a youth in a small town in upstate New York. He has two siblings, Sean, 17, and Lindsey, 15. “Everyone gets to know you because of how small the community is,” he says. “I always worked hard at academics and sports like basketball, baseball, soccer and football. I had plenty of friends and no enemies.”
Carrigan was cruising along as a happy-go-lucky teenager until Sept. 26, 2014. He was a friend’s house studying for a test the next day when he suffered a seizure. He was taken to a hospital in nearby Cooperstown, New York, and he underwent a CT scan that identified a mass in his brain. Later that day, he suffered another seizure and immediately was taken to the Albany Medical Center where an MRI honed in on the tumor in the posterior portion of his brain, near the visual cortex.
Carrigan said the daytime seizures were the first overt signs of a problem, but in hindsight says he may have missed other cues that something was wrong. “I think I was having seizures previously, but they were nocturnal seizures,” he says.
After the diagnosis, Carrigan knew he required surgery, but the family needed to travel to Alabama for a family wedding. His seizures were controlled by medication on the trip.
Then Oct. 13 arrived, and the Carrigans sent Mitch into the operating room shortly after 6 a.m. “Obviously anyone would be scared if you were having brain surgery, having doctors opening up your skull,” says Carrigan. Four hours later, he emerged from the operating room with a six-inch incision stapled together on the back of his skull. “The doctors said the margins of the tumor were clear of cancerous cells,” says Carrigan, meaning he would not have to undergo radiation or chemotherapy. Four days later, he was sent home for recovery.
In January 2015, Carrigan rejoined his classmates at Laurens High School, and by the end of his junior year, he had caught up with the academic work he had missed. But a lot of “normal teenager experiences were pushed back,” he says, such as getting his driver’s license — he didn’t get his until January 2016, months after his friends.
Laurens school superintendent Romona Wenck told the local newspaper, the Oneonta Daily Star, that Carrigan did not seek special treatment in achieving his goal of graduating as valedictorian. “He just kept plugging away,” Wenck told the newspaper.
Having battled through a cancer diagnosis has changed the way he sees life, Carrigan says.
“It’s made me a better person,” he says. “It goes back to the choice I had to make to choose either the hard or easy road, but I knew it would be better for me to choose the hard path. Hardly anything is easy, but normally the harder choices are better ones. Fighting cancer was a good example of this, and I am always willing to help others because so many helped me in my success.”
Carrigan says he still experiences headaches, particularly after reading for extended periods. His medical team is looking at medications that may help deter the headaches, Carrigan says. “I find it’s easier to read standing up, and the headaches don’t develop as quickly,” he says.
Carrigan also undergoes an MRI scan every six months — the last one he had done in December 2016 showed no tumor growth.
He has adjusted to life in college and has enjoyed academic success in his first year at Allegheny, Carrigan says. His biggest challenge on campus so far — “time management.”
Also, he admits to a touch of occasional homesickness; Carrigan misses his family and the community that supported him during his illness, a feeling that is mutual.
“As parents, our concern with Mitchell going away to school was bittersweet,” says John Carrigan. “He is our first born and the first child to leave home and is missed. At the same time, two years ago, there was a period of time we didn’t know that this was even going to be possible, let alone if our son was going to survive. To have Mitchell at school makes us proud, and even though we miss him, we are thankful for the opportunities that lay ahead for Mitchell.
“We feel Allegheny is an extension of our local community,” says John Carrigan, “and we are grateful for the support and experiences Allegheny is making possible for Mitchell to explore and participate.”