Looking at Donnell Jean you would not think he was different from anyone else. People usually see him strolling around campus laughing with one of his friends or rushing to class trying to make it on time. His simple gestures, a head nod or a relaxed, “Hello,” is his way of making people feel at ease when they are around him.
But the 22-year-old Fort Lauderdale native is not your typical college student. His biggest worries are not wondering when his financial aid check is coming or trying to get through school on time. Instead, he focuses on what is most important to him, his life.
Three years ago, Jean was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in his left knee. It was right after his freshman year in college. He said he remembers when he first noticed pains in his leg.
“I would be playing basketball with my friends and then my knee would begin to bother me,” he said. “I tried brushing it off, but I knew inside something was wrong.”
Jean said he could not deny there was a problem when he woke up one morning and noticed his knee was swollen.
“One night my knee was swelling so I wrapped it, but when I woke up the next morning, it was the size of my head,” he said. “Once I realized the seriousness of the situation, I went to the university clinic.”
Jean said when he went to the clinic, the nurses gave him pain medicine unaware of his condition.
Eventually Jean was referred to Shands hospital in Gainesville and that was when doctors told him he had cancer.
“I had to have 12 sessions of chemotherapy over a 10 month period. I was constantly vomiting, my hair fell out, there were sores on my tongue, my teeth were extra sensitive and I became slightly anemic,” he said.
“But what bothered me the most was that I had to drop out of school”
Jean said having cancer made him understand the seriousness of the world.
“I became grown over night. During that time of my life, I was stronger than I had ever been. I was supposed to be scared, but I wasn’t,” he said.
Jean’s mother, Safira Jean, said finding out her son had cancer was overwhelming.
“I felt so bad for him. At first he wouldn’t tell me he was hurting because he was afraid I would be scared and I was,” she said. “I prayed a lot saying ‘God my son is in your hands.'”
Troed Williams, 23, said he’s known Jean since middle school and was never more devastated than when he heard his friend had cancer. Williams said Jean showed amazing strength, which reflected a side of himself Williams never knew.
“Jean was always outgoing and kind-hearted, but the experience made him more outspoken and more grown up. It humbled him and out of all the people I know, I believe he is the only one who could have been that strong.”
Three years later, Jean is back in school and cancer free. Although he has a prosthesis bend, which is similar to a normal knee cap, he said his knee is stronger than it has been in a long time.
Jean said the experience was trying, but found ways to endure through it all.
“My faith kept me strong. People used to tell me if they were in my shoes, they would have quit,” he said. “But I was not created to give up.”
Contact Tiffany Pitts at email@example.com