Battling cancer changes student’s outlook

Jessica Roark, shown in this May 2009 file photo, died Aug. 22. She had battled adenoid cystic carcinoma, all the while striving to make the world around her a better place.

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Commencement schedule

Here are a few highlights of today’s commencement at Kansas University.

• 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., Memorial Drive closed to traffic. (Parking ban begins midnight Saturday.)
• 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Class of 2009 commencement lunch. Chancellor’s residence, 1532 Lilac Lane.
• 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., KU Visitor Center open at 1502 Iowa.
• 2 p.m., Commencement participants assemble on Memorial Drive.
• 2:30 p.m., Commencement procession begins.

Cancer may have claimed Jessica Roark’s right eye, but it hasn’t shaken her inner resolve.

The senior from Meriden will walk down the hill at Kansas University today with her peers, but she’ll take final exams next week, after keeping up with classes while undergoing cancer treatments in Texas.

In 2006, she noticed one of her eyelids was swollen, and eventually noticed a small mass in the area. Doctors took a biopsy, and initially offered a misdiagnosis, Roark said.

A doctor at one point recommended a warm compress.

The swelling did not subside, she said, and the first biopsy came back inconclusive, but with a recommendation to see an oncologist.

Further tests, however, came back positive, and eventually came the diagnosis — adenoid cystic carcinoma, a rare form of cancer usually originating in the head or neck, with a tendency to grow along nerves.

Roark’s attitude shifted, immediately turning her focus to her new challenge. She did a lot of research on her own.

“I was like, ‘What can I do, and how do we take care of it from here?'” she said.

Partly because of the rarity of her disease, and partly because of her nature, she’s learned not to necessarily take doctors at their word.

When doctors offer an opinion, “Some people will accept that and go home,” Roark said. “Not me.”

Florence Boldridge, director of diversity and women’s programs at the KU School of Engineering, has worked with Roark for three years.

She described Roark as a wonderful spirit and someone who has been able to effectively prioritize her life among many different challenges.

“She has such a wonderful attitude toward life in general,” Boldridge said, adding that she foresees great things in Roark’s future.

Roark said her attitude toward life and her disease has evolved. Especially after she received a skin graft following surgery to remove her eye in 2007, she dealt with a number of issues related to body image and low self-esteem.

Eventually, with help from others, she learned to adjust.

“I really have to accept myself and not care what anybody else thinks,” she said.

The cancer is in remission now, Roark said, but it’s flared up once since the original diagnosis. The experience has caused her to re-examine the way she looked at life.

“Most people my age don’t think about death at all,” she said. “I try to not take as many things for granted.”

She’s thankful for all her support from friends and family — her 17-year-old sister cut all her hair off when Roark lost hers due to chemotherapy treatments.

“I felt really close to her, and I really saw how much she cared for me,” Roark said.

After she graduates with her degree in environmental studies, she’ll return to KU to finish a civil engineering degree.

When she returns to campus, she hopes to organize a fundraiser for an organization dedicated to fighting her form of cancer — the Adenoid Cystic Carcinoma Research Foundation, online at Because of its rarity, almost no research is being done on the disease at the moment, she said.

After that, the graduate school applications will go out, in the hopes of pursuing a career in environmental engineering.

Preserving the environment is a top priority for Roark — she expressed a hope that she could catch a sunrise in the Flint Hills on her way back north from Texas, where she has been receiving cancer treatments.

Perhaps it would be symbolic, she said, of her return trip from Texas. A beautiful new beginning.

“I have a path I’m going to take, and whatever I want I’m going to go and get it,” she said. “I’m not afraid to advocate for myself.”