Washington State student and rabid Cougars fan Ben Cushing died Oct. 2 after battling a rare form of lymphoma. Beyond the story of a young man’s courage in battling “the rarest of the rarest” form of cancer, the ordeal transcends the Apple Cup rivalry so prevalent this week.
After one of Washington State’s most stirring wins of the Mike Leach era — a 30-27 upset of USC on Sept. 29 in Pullman — the coach glanced at his bright green wristband, emblazoned with the words “Cush It To The Limit,” as he walked into his postgame news conference.
Before he had even sat down, Leach told the assembled media that he was dedicating the win to Ben Cushing of Sammamish, whom he called “a great Coug.”
Leach had no way of knowing, yet, how much his words would uplift Cushing’s friends and family members, packed at that very moment into a hospital vigil at the University of Washington Medical Center after doctors had concluded that Ben’s condition was terminal. Nor did he know that within 72 hours, Cushing would succumb to the hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma he had been battling so nobly for months, always driven by the goal of returning to classes at Washington State.
How to help
Contributions to Ben Cushing’s “Cush It To The Limit” fund to fight T-cell lymphomas can be made at cushittothelimit.com/cush-it-to-the-limit/. Information on Ben’s Celebration of Life on Friday at Carnation Farms can also be found here. Barstool Wazzu also is holding a fund-raising campaign for Ben through Sunday: gofundme.com/barstool-wazzu-for-ben-cushing.
That, and finding a cure for the disease that afflicts just 40 to 100 people each year in the United States. Ben was just 19 and yet made an impact that would be indelible.
“He was such a unique kid — he just fostered love and adoration,” family friend Kathryn Stevenson said.
Cushing’s ordeal, at once unbearably sad and hugely inspiring, deserves a thorough recounting. Beyond the story of a young man’s courage in battling what Cushing’s oncologist, Andrei Shustov, calls “the rarest of the rarest” form of cancer, the ordeal is one that transcends the Washington State-Washington rivalry so prevalent this week as Saturday night’s Apple Cup approaches.
Cougars, Huskies united
Yes, Ben — like his parents Alison and Scott, both WSU graduates — was a rabid Coug, one who took his beloved Cougar blanket to all his arduous treatments and procedures, including the 12 rounds of chemo that ravaged his body. But Ben’s fight united Cougars and Huskies, not just physically at the UW hospital but also within their purple and gold and crimson and gray hearts.
Dr. Shustov himself, who said he has re-dedicated himself to finding a cure for this nearly 100 percent fatal form of cancer in the wake of Ben’s death, is a UW associate professor as well as a Seattle Cancer Care Alliance doctor.
“For us, being die-hard Cougs, it was so hard to be at the University of Washington and see the purple surrounding us,” Alison Cushing said. “But they were so amazing. It (the rivalry) just doesn’t matter to us. It just doesn’t matter.”
And conversely, after witnessing the grace of Leach and the uncomplaining tenacity of Ben, you have equally die-hard Huskies, such as family friend Jon Engman, who now see WSU in a different light.
It was Engman who sent the wristband to Leach before the USC game, with a letter describing Ben’s fight. Leach’s response stunned Engman — not only would Leach wear the wristband during the USC game, but he filmed a personal message to Ben in which he displayed the band on his wrist and expressed heartfelt well-wishes. That video was quickly passed on via text message to Ben’s entourage in his UW hospital room (which was festooned, as always, with WSU gear).
Ben, who had a seizure on that Friday, already was slipping out of consciousness as the game blared on the hospital TV, but his parents are convinced that Ben “sent his juju to Coach Leach and the team.” The Cougars edged USC 30-27 for their first win over a Top-5 team in 25 years.
Engman, a UW graduate, had such an aversion to Washington State that when his daughter chose to attend the university, he would fly her home during “Dad’s Weekend” rather than avail himself to the Husky hate he felt on the Pullman campus. But those “scars,” as he called them, faded after he watched Leach. He was even moved to write what he calls an “essence poem” in Ben’s honor called “The Cougar” that now is displayed in Leach’s office.
“Now, for sure, there will always be that connection with Coach Leach, even though I’ve never met him,” Engman said. “It has definitely healed the scars.”
Cushing, a WSU freshman who had graduated from Eastlake High School, was diagnosed in January after a pain in his side became so severe during his first class of the new semester that he had to go to the emergency room in Pullman. After a swirl of hospital visits and puzzled doctors, Ben landed back in Seattle at Swedish Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma and told the grim news: There was no known cure.
“We held each other’s hands, trying to convince each other it was going to be OK,” Ben would say later during an incredibly moving Relay for Life event at Eastlake High School.
His stunned parents began searching the web to find out what they could do about the disease. Information was scarce, and frightening, but Alison found an article by Shustov. She connected with Shustov with the help of a relative who worked for Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and he agreed to consult on the case. The Cushings initially thought Shustov was based on Chicago, and were prepared to travel there, only to be overjoyed to find out, against all odds, he worked for Seattle Cancer Care Alliance and was based at UW.
Shustov took over Ben’s care and ordered the removal of his cancer-ridden spleen, which had ballooned from the normal fist-sized to the size of a football. Then began heavy regimens of chemotherapy and the quest for the only shot Ben had — getting the cancer into remission so he could undergo a double umbilical-cord blood transplant (akin to a bone-marrow transplant). The procedure would have taken place at Children’s Hospital in Seattle, and Ben came so close this past summer that he was actually processed for the procedure. But the cancer always came back with a vengeance.
Shustov would find out early what others did later — that no matter the invasiveness or pain of a procedure, no matter the devastation of a setback, Ben was unfailingly positive and upbeat, hiding discomfort and dismay because he didn’t want others to worry. He was especially concerned about his older sister Emily, with whom he was extremely close.
Ben talked of going back to school, of being able to snowboard again, of getting into the medical field himself.
Even the day before he was declared terminal, Ben went outside in his wheelchair at the UW hospital. It was a gloriously sunny September day, and he said, “This just makes me realize it’s going to be great when I get home.”
“He was probably one of my most memorable patients — so lively, and he loved life so much,” Shustov said. “He kept talking about his friends in school, traveling and sports. He had such an attitude of, ‘We’re going to beat this. Whatever you need to do, do it.’ ”
Despite the ordeal of his therapy, “Ben always greeted me with a smile and a hug,” Shustov added. “You could see the trust in his eyes. He had so much courage, it infected the whole clinic. The whole clinic looked forward to meeting him every time. He lifted everyone up.”
A quest for a cure
Ben began a fund-raising project called “Cush It To the Limit” that to date has raised about $140,000 toward finding a cure for hepatosplenic T-cell lymphoma. It won’t be easy — “There is something unique about this cancer,” Shustov said. “No current treatment touches it.”
But Shustov has some “non-conventional” ideas about attacking this lymphoma that he will move forward with, inspired by Ben and others stricken. Ben adopted the motto, “For A Reason,” and there’s little doubt that the quest for a cure is the reason he had in mind.
During his treatment, a large group of Ben’s friends, both from Eastlake and WSU, rallied around him. Some were attending UW, which made it easy to drop in for small acts of kindness as comforting as rubbing his feet.
“Literally, kids were coming every weekend to see him,” Alison said. “They had a plan over the summertime to always have someone with Ben. … He always had these amazing friendships that us in a lifetime I don’t think have had.”
His dad Scott says Ben had “an old soul. Even at a young age, he’s always been able to connect with anybody at any age.”
‘Full of grace and strength’
Former WSU quarterback Jason Gesser found out about Ben’s struggles and came for a hospital visit with former Cougars wide receiver River Cracraft and assistant coach Roy Manning. Leach was unable to come at that time because of travel issues.
“That first interaction — gosh, I was absolutely drawn to this kid with his charisma and how he approached things,” Gesser said. “Here he was literally fighting for his life, and to be there and feel his personality, it sang through.
“You don’t come across people with the mental and physical strength and the character he showed. The way he approached the whole thing, it affected me and will affect me for my whole life.”
Cougar legend Jack Thompson also visited Ben several times and had a similar reaction.
“It was just a very sad situation, but I’ll tell you what, that young man, wow,” Thompson said. “He was full of grace and strength. You need only look at his parents, and now I see why.”
There were small triumphs along the way. Ben was well enough to go back to Pullman with Alison for Mom’s Weekend in the spring (but didn’t reach his goal of attending a football game at Martin Stadium). During the summer, Ben was able to attend a Mariners game and see the Blue Angels.
We know so many people that are die-hard Husky fans. ... After they saw Leach with this, they all said, ‘OK, we’re Cougs now.’” - Alison Cushing
But when the stark reality hit in late September that the end was near, Ben’s friends and family amassed from across the state and even the country, flying in to say their goodbyes throughout the weekend.
Two of his friends drove all night from Montana State, not content to say goodbye through a cellphone pressed to Ben’s ear. It just wasn’t enough, they said.
“We worry about the millennials — ‘Oh, they’re horrible’ — but seeing all this, there’s hope,” Alison said. “We’re in such a turmoil-ridden society, but to see these kids just come out, it was incredible.”
It was against that poignant backdrop that the gathered guests, surrounding Ben, excitedly watched Leach’s message, the subsequent Cougar victory, and his postgame dedication to Ben. He never was able to get back to Pullman, but his friends made sure Pullman came to him.
“I feel like Ben’s dedication to our team kind of inspired us,” Leach said this week amid Apple Cup preparation.
Ben hung on all weekend but died on Monday, Oct. 2 — while his mom had stepped out for a walk. Those close to the family believe he didn’t want her to be in the room when he left. Close friends and family repaired to the Cushings’ Sammamish home to listen to his playlist and dance all night long.
“That’s what Ben would have wanted,” Alison said. “He made it clear: I don’t want you getting messed up about this.”
Ben’s three closest friends told Emily, 23, that they knew she had lost a brother, but she had gained three. The family placed his faithful Coug blanket (“my Coug,” he called it) on his bed because it was the only one that smelled like him.
“When we went to the University of Washington ER in the middle of the night, Ben’s like, ‘Bring my Coug,’ ” Alison said. “He always had that with him, no matter what. Which was great. I think that’s what kept him alive as long as it did, that hope.”
Friends were invited to write letters of tribute to Ben, and 38 were cremated with him. The family recently got tattoos in Ben’s honor. They planted a tree, a Washington hawthorne, for him in Pullman at the corner of Opal and Colorado on the grounds of his fraternity, Tau Kappa Epsilon.
The Cushings plan to keep the Cush It To The Limit fund going indefinitely as a tribute to Ben. When Ben was dying, Dr. Shustov called from Italy, where he was on sabbatical, to pay his respects. The last thing Ben told him was, “I know I’m not going to survive, but find a cure.”
A celebration of life for Ben will be held Friday. The family decided to wait until everyone returned to the area for Thanksgiving. They plan a trip to Costa Rica for Christmas to help avoid the inevitable melancholy of their first holiday without Ben.
And on Saturday, of course, they will all watch the Apple Cup. Everyone who knew Ben has an entirely different perspective on this “rivalry.”
“We know so many people that are die-hard Husky fans, and we have family friends that are season-ticket holders,” Cushing said. “After they saw Leach with this, they all said, ‘OK, we’re Cougs now.’ ”
Shortly after Ben’s death, the family received a call from Leach expressing his condolences and telling them that Ben would always be in the Cougar family. Just Wednesday, Leach sent them a USC game ball with Ben’s name emblazoned on it with the score of the game.
If you look closely on the sideline Saturday at Husky Stadium, you’ll see that the Cougar coach is still wearing the green wristband. He hasn’t taken it off since the USC game.
“And I have spares if I wear this one out,’’ Leach said.
* A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Alison Cushing as Alison Stevenson.