Fighting Cancer: UA Professor Battles Adversity
His expected termination date was six months ago.
“Why?” he asks himself. “Knowing that I should have passed away sometime ago, what is it about my life that’s different?
“I’ve had 10 acquaintances or friends since January of last year to January of this year that have been diagnosed with cancer and all of them passed away. Why not me? That’s a good question. Philosophically, there are a whole lot of answers to that. Medically, I have some saviors on my side too— Dr. Suen, Dr. Oakhill, Dr. Manning—but I think that the Lord has other needs for me here.”
He pauses for a second. He speaks, but there is no need. The picture frames, cards, plants and gifts in his office speak for him.
“I am just exceptionally blessed. If my family and students weren’t supporting me, I don’t think I’d be here.”
Dub Ashton, 65, is an associate professor of Marketing. He was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer in the summer of 2010.
“I feel really good, and quite honestly, the reason I feel so good is [because of] the compassion and support that I’ve had from my colleagues here at the college and my students each and every day,” he said.
The summer of 2010 started off like any summer. Ashton was teaching classes, when his throat started hurting.
“My throat hurt so bad that I had a hard time talking in class,” he said.
One of his students, who had thyroidectomy, an operation that involves the removal of all or part of the thyroid gland, recommended to Ashton a doctor by the name of Lance Manning.
Ashton made an appointment and Manning told him that he needed to do a biopsy the next day.
“They did a biopsy around the first of July, 2010. I was held in the hospital overnight and in two days the pathology came back that I was stage four advanced cancer…throat cancer, specifically,” he said.
Within the next eight days, Ashton began radiation. It lasted for 35 days, with 20 hits of radiation each day, for a total of 700 hits. The week after he began radiation, they started chemotherapy, which lasted for eight weeks.
“As I got into the fall of the year, the pain was burning…you can see the scar on my neck where it burned,” Ashton said. “And during that period of time, I lost about 70 pounds in front of my students.”
In early December, Ashton was back at the doctor’s office, when Manning told him he needed surgery. Manning gave him at most, a year [to live].
He arranged for Ashton to have surgery at the Rockefeller Cancer Center at UAMS. On Jan. 17, 2011, Ashton had a radical neck dissection, an eight- to ten-hour surgery to remove his lymph nodes.
Since his surgery, he has been seeing Dr. Suen every 30 days. He has to have a PET Scan, a medical imaging tool used to help physicians in detecting disease and helps identifying recurring of cancer.
“Now about four weeks ago, I had a PET scan, which has some suspicious results on it, so they gave me an MRI and they gave me a sonogram as well. So, where I am right now is some indication that there might be spread.”
Ashton gets up and reaches for a picture frame.
“I’m going to show you two more pictures,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of pictures.”
In his hands, he holds a small 4×6 wooden frame, with a photo of him and a young girl.
“This is Morgan Stelphlugh, and this picture she took with me a year ago at the Beta Gamma Sigma dinner.”
In this other hand is another photo of him with two other students who had given him this gift before they graduated.
“These are things I truly cherish,” he said. “Every picture in this room has some stories with it that are wonderful, wonderful stories.”
Hanging on the wall near the entrance of his office is a large photo of his former student Ashley and her husband Andrew Snieder. They’re smiling and giving him a thumps up.
“When I come in everyday and see that picture, how can [I] not be positive?”
Ashton’s students, work colleagues and other faculty at the UA are a major part of the reason he is still alive today, he said.
“I’ve very grateful for all these people. What I’ve been able to achieve in the last 18 months is supported by all the souls and personalities in my life and they’ve stabilized me in so many ways – they’ve brought me back to reality, they’ve supported me, they’ve embraced me,” he said. “And geez, if I could take out a billboard that says thank you world and list all their names, I’d have to have a mile of billboards to be able to do that.”
He immediately mentions two groups— Pi Beta Phi and Kappa Kappa Gamma.
“I could probably give you 15-20 names from both groups of people who come by to check on me, see how I am. They’ve sent me some absolutely beautiful cards,” he said.
Ashton is also the adviser for Pi Beta Phi, which have supported him through his toughest times.
“They’re kind of like an extension of my family and to some extent they’ve adopted a soul in need,” he said. “And the good part of about that is that the adoption process has given me additional emotional energy to not let this condition that I have, be a distraction.
“There’s a warmness, there’s an embrace, there’s a genuine compassion and understanding that both of these groups have given me.”
There is one young woman in particular whose name Ashton brings up many times—Sarah Brady.
Brady, a junior psychology major and member of Pi Beta Phi, has known Ashton from her childhood.
“We call him Uncle Dub,” she said. “He’s like a member of our family.”
Ashton started traveling with Brady’s father for business trips, and has seen her and her twin sister grow up.
“He was always at our birthdays, and would come watch us play soccer,” Brady said.
Brady and her sorority sisters often send him cards and flowers, she said. “If we send him flowers, he always sends a bouquet back to us. And it’s always a bigger and better bouquet.”
She describes him in three words—encouraging, compassionate and passionate.
“He is one of the sweetest people anyone could ever meet. He is still up here teaching classes, [which is] encouraging and motivating to me.”
Ashton never stopped teaching. When he had surgery, he was told to take six weeks off. He took off 2.5 weeks, but because of the snowstorm, he only missed two days of class.
“There are people who say they like what they do. I truly love what I do. I love being in contact with people,” he said.
Students are the “wind beneath my wings,” he said, in reference to a song by Willie Nelson.
When he first found he had cancer, he “was frightened,” he said.
“I think I retreated in my fear for a few days and then decided I had a choice. I could run from this or embrace and deal with it. What made the difference for me was going back to the classroom.”
He smiles. He is 70 pounds thinner than he was a year ago, and signs of aging and fatigue show in the not-so-perfect creases lining his face. However, the smile remains the same—just as big and just as sincere.
“He not only has a passion for teaching, but a passion for connecting with students,” said Nick Carter, a former student.
Carter recalls how the first day of class, Ashton stood at the door, greeting each student and making a quick association.
More than 75 students came through that door and Ashton remembered every one of them.
“When professors know your name and know you, you try harder and want to make them proud,” Carter said. “It’s been three years and he still remembers me.”
Every week, Ashton takes his wife out to eat. This is their tradition. If they are at Outback and his wife, Sandra, orders a specialty steak, Ashton orders the same meal.
However, his meal goes home with them and is Sandra’s lunch the next day.
When Ashton had his biopsy in July 2010, he couldn’t swallow anything because they had extracted matter tissue, which prevented food from passing through the throat.
He feeds himself by funneling Glucerna 1.2, a special formula for those who use feeding tubes, into his stomach.
Ashton recalls a day in September, when Sandra said to him, “I don’t want to eat out anymore.”
“Why?” he asked her.
“You’re not ordering anything. I’m out there eating by myself and I feel kinda conspicuous,” she replied.
“Listen,” he said. “We’ll solve that problem.”
Eating out is their peaceful time together. It’s their “only vice,” he said. When he talks about her, he speaks with love and admiration.
Sandra and Ashton have been married for 36 years and he sees her as his “best friend beyond any shadow of a doubt,” he said.
“She’s the one that’s suffering through this, I’m not. She’s a very strong and wonderful lady”
Ashton is not certain what the future will bring, but he is positive about one thing: even when he leaves this world, he will always be near his wife.
“I’m not going to have a funeral. I’m going to be cremated and my ashes will be strewn over the southern edge of Cumberland Island.”
The island is located on the Atlantic Ocean, off the coast of Georgia. It is three miles north of where Ashton’s next house will be.
“When she [Sandra] goes out to eat at the Marina Café, she’s going to be there with her next main squeeze, whoever that’s going to be…maybe nobody. But as the tide comes in and out, I can have dinner with them because I’ll be on the tide coming in and out.
“I’ve planned all this stuff and this is definitely what I want to do. This way, I can be with my wife everyday when she walks on the beach.”