Diego Perez was one year away from graduating college when he got the worst news possible. His four-year-old brother was diagnosed with leukemia, and he was going to have to drop out of school to help him.
“I was more than willing to drop everything I have to go take care of my brother, because I’d do anything for my siblings,” Perez told NBC 7. “I mean a four-year-old kid shouldn’t be going through stuff like that, you know.”
But Perez didn’t have to leave San Diego State University because of one woman: Tammy Blackburn.
She created the Wallace Shatsky Blackburn Courage Through Cancer Fund to help students manage the immense challenges of cancer. And as one of SDSU’s directors of marketing and communications, she’s able to connect with students going through one of the darkest times of their lives.
“These are humans. These are students facing real difficult challenges who want to stay in school, but they can't, and if we don't help them, they're going to take a leave of absence,” Blackburn said. “And if we don't help them, they will drop out of school, and they probably won't finish their degree. The odds are against them.”
Blackburn reached out to Perez to help his family and stay in school at the same time.
“I got a call from Tammy, and then, like, a literal weight just got off my shoulders,” Perez said.
Perez and his little brother Jesse stay connected over the phone.
“He FaceTimes me so much. Sometimes I’m at work. Sometimes I’m in class,” but Perez said he always picks up.
And Jesse has come a long way since his diagnosis.
“He’s doing great. He’s actually in remission. He’s got three more years of chemo ahead of him but he’s back,” the four-year-old’s brother said.
Perez is one of seven students who benefit from the Courage Through Cancer Fund.
“It happens. Cancer doesn’t discriminate,” she said. “These are real-life experiences that rock your world -- that absolutely tear families and tear 20-year-olds apart.”
Blackburn is so passionate about the fund because she battled cancer herself – creating the program in 2018 after she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
“It just immediately hit my heart that what I wanted to do was I wanted to do something for the students who were trying to accomplish and finish their dream,” she said.
While Blackburn beat her cancer for the first time, it returned in March.
“And now I’m dealing with stage four metastatic breast cancer, and my cancer has spread,” she said. “So, I'm back in the journey. I'm back in the battle. I'm back in the fight.”
But that won’t stop Blackburn from continuing to help others in similar situations.
“With this fund, they have a place to go, and they may be able to stay in school and that's the ultimate goal: To see them finish through,” Blackburn told NBC 7. “I’m not going to stop working until that happens.”
Blackburn said the Courage Through Cancer Fund has never had “a more rewarding, more fulfilling experience.”
With a short time left, Perez is on track to graduate SDSU.
“And I'm going to watch him walk across that stage and proudly celebrate with Diego Perez,” Blackburn said.
Perez told NBC 7 the fund has inspired him to give back to the community too.
“Eventually when I'm able to, I want to contribute to this fund. That's going to be one of my goals in life,” he said.
In less than one year, the fund generated more than $150,000. To donate, visit SDSU’s website.