11 lives were lost in 11 days. For the LGBTQ community in Utah, enough was enough.
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It was the summer of 2017 when a small community in Utah watched in horror as 11 people took their own lives in 11 days.

All photos provided by Starbucks.

One after the other, the state had been struck with a wave of LGBTQ suicides, shaking the queer and transgender community to its core.


"These are the kids who feel like God doesn’t love them, their parents won’t understand, their community won’t understand who they are," local Utah resident Stephanie Larsen explains.

This sense of isolation has only fueled youth suicides in the state.

"Suicide is now the leading cause of death for young people in Utah, and the suicide rate has tripled since 2007."

Seeing that LGBTQ youth in her own city desperately needed a safe place to go, Larsen founded Encircle, a resource center in Provo, Utah.

"The reason for Encircle is to keep kids alive," Larsen says.

Having watched so many LGBTQ youth take their own lives, Larsen knew something had to give. “[I wanted] to give these kids a safe space to be, so they can grow up and have time to think about 'Who am I? Who do I wanna be?'"

Encircle offers support groups, counseling, speaker series, and most importantly, a sense of affirmation and togetherness to LGBTQ folks in Provo and beyond.

"We can help them have a safe place to be [and] move the community to better understand these kids and their families," Larsen says.

And she believes that this understanding is possible after having lived it herself. It wasn’t that long ago that she herself harbored prejudice of her own. "But life changed, and experiences changed me," she explains.

And as an "all-American Mormon," if change was possible for her, she believes that change can happen in Provo, a city known for being one of the most conservative in the country.

"[We] meet them where they are and help us all progress and become better," Larsen says.

Having only been open six months, the center has already changed lives.

Donna Showalter, whose son Michael is a regular at Encircle, says the center has made a real difference in their lives.

"When I was running for student body president, an account was made about me being gay," he says. "[They said,] 'Whatever you do, don’t vote for Michael Gaywalter. We don’t want our school being run by a f*ggot.'"

This experience terrified Donna, who feared for his life as the harassment escalated.

"There was a time when we were really worried about Michael’s safety," his mother says. "There was always the thought in my mind that he might not come back."

"I would text him, 'Where are you?' And he would say, 'I’m at Encircle,' and I would instantly stop worrying," she says.

"That pit in my stomach would go away instantly. I knew that he was safe."

"I really feel like Encircle literally saved his life," she says.

And this, of course, is what Encircle is all about — creating a space where youth are safe to be their whole selves.

When Larsen created the center, she envisioned a place where LGBTQ youth could show up as they are without having to leave their community and their families.

"We will never tell any of the youth who they should be," Larsen explains. "Our approach is, you need to be who you need to be ... and they need to look inside of themselves and say, 'This is where I will find happiness. And this is where I will be whole and complete.'"

For the 11 LGBTQ people who lost their lives last summer, that’s a wholeness they were never able to find. But in a small house in Provo, Utah — a safe haven in a city that so often feels like a small town — each and every day, there’s a reason for hope.

For the youth of Encircle and the families and friends who love them, nothing is ever easy. But together, they can at least know it’s not a journey they’ll be taking alone.

Learn more about the incredible work happening at Encircle:

Upstanders: Love for All in Utah

At one point, she thought homosexuality was evil. Then life happened, and she made it her mission to make LGBTQ youth feel safe and loved.

Posted by Upworthy on Monday, November 20, 2017

Peter and Lisa Marshall's romance began 20 years ago, after the former neighbors had each gotten divorced. They lived in different states and maintained a long-distance relationship for eight years, as neither wanted to uproot her kids. After Lisa's youngest went off to college in 2009, the couple decided to get married.

A dream Turks and Caicos beach wedding followed. Lisa moved to Peter's home in Connecticut, where they enjoyed seven years of marital bliss. Then the warning signs hit.

Peter started giving Lisa directions to their home. He began having trouble finishing sentences, struggling for the words

"Instead of the word 'airplane,' he'd say, 'that thing that goes up in the sky,' " Lisa told The Washington Post. "He also became pretty forgetful, but the word deficiency was really hard to ignore."

Peter went to a neurologist in 2018 and was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. He was 52.

"Before his diagnosis, I always thought that Alzheimer's was an old person's disease," Lisa told the Post. "Now I know better."

Keep Reading Show less

Peter and Lisa Marshall's romance began 20 years ago, after the former neighbors had each gotten divorced. They lived in different states and maintained a long-distance relationship for eight years, as neither wanted to uproot her kids. After Lisa's youngest went off to college in 2009, the couple decided to get married.

A dream Turks and Caicos beach wedding followed. Lisa moved to Peter's home in Connecticut, where they enjoyed seven years of marital bliss. Then the warning signs hit.

Peter started giving Lisa directions to their home. He began having trouble finishing sentences, struggling for the words

"Instead of the word 'airplane,' he'd say, 'that thing that goes up in the sky,' " Lisa told The Washington Post. "He also became pretty forgetful, but the word deficiency was really hard to ignore."

Peter went to a neurologist in 2018 and was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's. He was 52.

"Before his diagnosis, I always thought that Alzheimer's was an old person's disease," Lisa told the Post. "Now I know better."

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."