Winning three of Northern Arizona University’s most esteemed honors—the President’s Prize, the Gold Axe Award and the Distinguished Senior Award for his college—pales in comparison to Alex Oden’s other feats.
A two-time brain cancer survivor, a tireless fundraiser for cancer research, an endurance cyclist and an environmentalist, Oden is driven by a passion to make every day count.
“Cancer is the best thing that ever happened to me and my family,” the 22-year-old explained. “American society has become so focused on ourselves and on what we can get for ourselves. We have forgotten about the need to help.”
While recovering from treatment of his second germ cell brain tumor, called germinoma, Oden was inspired by Lance Armstrong’s book, It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life. He realized he had three choices. He could give up, go back to being who he was, or he could become someone better. Oden dug down into his inner reserves and has never looked back.
Instead, when he was released from the hospital, he began running, biking and swimming and soon he and his mother began training for a triathlon. They decided to use the triathlon as a fundraiser for pediatric cancer and raised $8,750. Since then, his fundraising has continued and he has raised more than $50,000 for cancer organizations and has spent hundreds of hours mentoring both cancer patients and survivors. Oden also became the first recipient of Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong Junior Spirit of Survivorship Award.
Knowing that he wanted to continue to give back and to help cancer patients and their families, Oden chose to study psychology at NAU. During his time here, he served on the scholarship committee of Carolyn’s Compassionate Children, an organization that raises money to give scholarships to adolescent cancer survivors; he co-founded the NAU Trijacks, a club for students interested in competing in multi-sport events; and last year he helped organize Arizona’s Livestrong Day—all while working multiple jobs on campus at Cline library, the University Union and for the psychology department.
“NAU has become my home and my family. After my two battles with brain cancer in 2000 and 2002, I found myself an outsider. Due to memory and visual processing issues that were a result of the eight brain surgeries, chemotherapy and radiation, I struggled in school. I wasn’t even sure I could handle being at a university,” Oden recalled. “My time at NAU changed all of that. NAU has provided me with a place to grow and explore who I am and who I will become. It has supported me in every way and helped me to excel.”
Oden just wrapped up a research study he led under the advisement of Bill Huffman, associate dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, and Ann Huffman, associate professor of psychology, funded by a Hooper Sustainability Award. The study involved 10 residential buildings on campus and used a competition and education program to determine what makes people behave sustainably.
Sustainability is something he believes in. Just ask him about his plans to save NAU’s food waste from the landfill and transform it into a renewable energy source called biogas. Since Oden intends to stay at NAU a little longer to pursue a master’s degree in psychology, it’s a sure bet that he will make it happen.