Hero of Hope

Rider student and cancer survivor Runyon “RJ” Barkelew will reflect on his recovery from childhood leukemia at the opening ceremony of the 2011 Relay for Life on March 26.
Monday, March 14, 2011

Which of your childhood memories stand out most in your mind? Perhaps it was meeting your first friend, your first day of school or catching fireflies on a warm summer night.

Runyon “RJ” Barkelew remembers how his “stomach felt as hard as a basketball” when he was 5 years old.

Just a day after his parents had taken Barkelew to the pediatrician to check him out after noticing black and blue marks on his body and a swollen stomach, the doctor called with bad news. Barkelew’s blood work counts were off. He had many immature white cells and very few healthy ones. At the age of 5, he was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Barkelew admits he doesn’t remember much from the early experiences, so his parents often fill in the gaps.

In February 1997, Barkelew had his first relapse and had to undergo even more chemotherapy and radiation because of it. Then in April 1999, he had a second relapse and had to go through much harsher chemotherapy and radiation since the chances of his survival dropped dramatically to about 25 percent. There was only one option left, and that was to quickly find a bone marrow match. Luckily, in June 1999 he and his parents received good news that an unrelated bone marrow donor was found. In August 1999, he had his bone marrow transplant at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

“I was scared. I had less than a quarter chance of survival. I would pray every night,” Barkelew recalled. “A lot of my recovery was due to faith, support from family and friends, and especially myself willing to not let go.”  

Two years after the transplant, Barkelew and parents located his bone marrow donor — a man from a small city in Germany. Later, when Barkelew was in high school, his parents invited his donor on a family vacation to Washington, D.C., where Barkelew was able to express his gratitude to the donor.

“Cancer changed my life in every possible way. My outlook on life has changed. I’m just happy to get up every morning,” said Barkelew, who is now 10 years in remission.

Barkelew, a junior Communication major with a Radio/TV concentration, is one of the “Heroes of Hope” scheduled to share his story during the opening ceremony of Rider University’s 2011 Relay for Life. The American Cancer Society’s signature fundraising event will run from 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 26, through 7 a.m. on Sunday, March 27, in the Student Recreation Center on the Lawrenceville campus.

“I think I’ll try to say things like cancer happens in life, and you don’t ever want it to hold you back from what you want to accomplish,” said Barkelew, also a member of the Pink Panthers team. “I have surpassed what I thought I could do. Right now, I’m amazing myself.”

Since he stepped foot onto the Lawrenceville campus as a freshman, Barkelew has been an active member of the University community. He is an intramural supervisor for Recreation Programs, treasurer of Catholic Campus Ministry, a member of Rider Runners and a Peer Leader for Emerging Leaders. Barkelew was recently inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor Society, and he will be inducted into Lambda Pi Eta, the honor society for the National Communication Association.

It was not until Barkelew enrolled at Rider that he was also able to witness the powerful support network that Relay for Life creates for those affected by cancer. Previously, he was never one to share his battle with leukemia.

“I never wanted to accept it. It was a dark thing in the past. I didn’t want to accept it as a part of me,” Barkelew explained. “I realized there’s support from around the world — even in the Rider community for cancer survivors. It’s part of my story. It’s part of my life. I might as well accept it and help others.”

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RJ Barkelew (center) participated in the 2010 Relay for Life.