Student overcomes cancer, pursues degree

Lonnie Jones, 43-year-old cancer survivor, stands next to his second Keating Award, which recognizes him as an outstanding tutee, at Charlotte campus’s Academic Support Center. Photo by Lianna Hubbard

By Lianna Hubbard

Within Lonnie Jones’ first year back from his service in the Army he dropped out of college twice. He thought he was turning around when he started at his third.

He was wrong.

Jones was diagnosed with a rare and aggressive brain cancer at 33. He saw his newborn son before going into emergency brain surgery. His 6-year-old daughter was in Michigan with his ex-wife when he went under.

“After I was diagnosed they told me I only had a 2% survival rate. They were like ‘Listen I hate to tell you this, but with treatment, you have 18 months,’” Jones said.

Jones survived, though, and is still kicking 11 years later.

He spent 10 and a half of those pleading with his doctors to let him go back to college.

“I wanted to go back to school right afterwards,” Jones said. “I never really struggled [with cancer]. My struggle was being told I couldn’t. For 10 years I was told ‘no.’”

Now, Jones, 43, spends five days a week on Charlotte campus working towards his career in nursing.

While studying at Keiser University, he was diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme, a form of brain cancer.

“I was a full-time college student and I started to wake up with headaches. I was feeling tingling feelings in my face,” Jones said. “I went to the doctors and they were like, ‘Well you need to change your pillows.’ They set me up an appointment with a neurologist.”

Jones never made it to his appointment.

“I started to stumble and walk sideways. I was rushed to the hospital and that’s where the doctors said ‘Man, we found two major masses in your brain. We’ve got to get you into surgery right away.’”

Jones didn’t have two masses in his brain but one tumor that swelled across his cerebellum. The tingling in his face was sensory seizures.

“They told my family that I was going to have to learn how to walk and talk and go through extensive rehab. I could be blind.”

Jones wasn’t blind or immobile when coming out of surgery. In fact he made it through with 100% of the tumor removed. He did think that he was in a McDonalds drive-thru for a couple hours in the post-operation ward though.

“I was ordering Big Macs.”

Although he stuttered and fidgeted uncontrollably for a couple months after the surgery, Jones had no recurrences of the tumor.

“I’m not the normal and I’ve been told that several times. ‘You’re not the normal. People that had what you had, they’re not here.’”

Jones doesn’t know why he survived when others didn’t. His only explanation is to point at the sky.

Jones struggled with being confined to a life of chemotherapy and hospital stays.

“I was doing [chemo] and I was jogging the bridge.” The mile-long Punta Gorda bridge that is. “It was weeks [after surgery]. I still had my staples in.”

He was also eager to return to college.

After three years working in the U.S. Army’s petroleum labs Jones enrolled at FSW for half a semester. When his grades dropped he transferred to Hodges University before landing at Keiser University.

Before the Army, Jones was a Budweiser deliveryman. He had multiple family members in the military and joined at 29.

“My family is all commercial fisherman. They dock their [shrimp] boats off of Fort Myers beach,” Jones said. “I didn’t want that lifestyle. That’s a lonely, hard living. I’ll be the first one in my family to actually graduate from college, to do what I’m doing.”

Jones’ 17-year-old daughter is following in his footsteps and plans to enroll at FGCU after graduating high school in Michigan. Jones raises his 12-year-old son as a single father after his second divorce. He hopes his son follows his half-sister but believes his children need to find their own paths.

“You can push, and you can push, but does it really help? They’ve got to make their own minds up.”

Jones made up his own mind.

“I’ve always wanted to be in the medical field. It’s a passion; it’s in my heart; it’s in my mind,” he said. “Every six months I’ll go in for checkups and I just find it intriguing how the MRIs work. I have been studying [my cancer] the whole time. I’ve studied natural diet combined with traditional treatment. I’ve studied a lot.”

For more than ten years, Jones’ doctors wouldn’t allow him to pursue his goal. Eventually they stopped telling him ‘no’ and cleared him to enroll at FSW again.

“They were like, ‘It’s time. For [a tumor] to come back on you now is less than 5%. So, you’re just like an average person,’” Jones said, “and they just had a check for it. They just wrote out a check.”

Jones says his oncologist, Dr. Chris Lobo, shared the good news by giving him a check for FSW’s tuition.

An Associate in Arts from FSW is Jones’ first step towards the nursing program at FGCU. He wants to specialize in oncology, the treatment of cancer, to help others like him.

“My thing is I had no hope. When somebody tells you what they told me, it hits you. The way I felt then, I don’t want others in my shoes to feel that way.”

Jones doesn’t plan on letting his grades drop again. When he’s not doing his monthly chemo treatments and taking care of his son, he’s in the Academic Support Center on Charlotte campus.

“They’ve helped me a lot in the math area. They take their time and they’re not in no rush to hurry up and pawn me off,” Jones said. “I’d come on the weekends if it was open.”

In the two semesters he’s been at FSW, Jones has won the ASC’s Keating Award twice. This monthly award is given to a tutee who exceeded expectations. Jones earned one in November last semester and another in January.

Jones estimates he puts in 40 hours a week at the ASC. He doubts what he’d do if the center wasn’t around.

“I’d probably go to the library, try and teach myself, get the math book for dummies,” said Jones.

Jones made a bookmark his first semester back at FSW. It reads “One day you will be there.”

“Whenever I feel discouraged in math, I will always look back on that,” Jones said. “Math pisses me off and I will master it. Until then I lose sleep. Anything less than an A sucks in my book.”

Jones has not given up though. He never did.

“Me being in the military, I looked at my life a little bit. My drill sergeants in basic training stuck in my head. It was mainly ‘Get up.’”

Jones lives with his son and 66-year-old mother who sat at his bedside when he came out of surgery. Now he’s taking care of her.

“She’s getting old. She’s got crippling arthritis, lupus. I take care of her financially and I don’t really have a whole lot. It’s the only thing to do, you got to make it work.”

Jones makes it work with social security benefits and a part-time maintenance job at Culver’s.

“You walk around and [other students are] just like ‘Oh, I think I’m going to drop’ and that’s just not an option. I don’t care if I have to live on the street, it’s not an option.”

Jones says he learned one thing from cancer: never let anyone tell him ‘no’ again

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