Faith, Family Push Royster to Win Battle with Cancer

Faith, Family Push Royster to Win Battle with Cancer

By Bryant Welbourne

The physical and emotional stress cancer puts on a person and their family is, more often than not, a new and daunting experience when one receives the terrifying diagnosis. But for Kaaren Royster and her family, the fight against cancer is an all too familiar battle.

Kaaren Royster

In 2016, the Tuscaloosa native was close to finishing the requirements to earn her bachelor’s degree in human development and family studies. She decided to delay graduation in order to add a second major in early childhood education. During the fall, she noticed something was going on with her health. She immediately went to her family physician for an answer.

“After a couple of ultrasounds, I was diagnosed with polycystic ovary syndrome,” said Royster. “My OB-GYN explained how my symptoms at the time were related to PCOS, but my mood swings and physical health soon became worse.”

As Royster’s symptoms escalated, more tests were ordered. It wasn’t long before doctors discovered that Kaaren was in the first stage of ovarian cancer.

“I was shocked because I was so young,” said Royster. “That really took a toll on me.”

Royster’s family worked to give her strength to cope with the diagnosis and prepare for what was to come. They knew all too well about the opponent. All of Royster’s grandparents had been diagnosed with a form of cancer. Her father was battling lung cancer at the time of Kaaren’s diagnosis. She also had an aunt who was diagnosed with breast cancer and a cousin who fought prostate cancer while they were in their 30s.

“I was very emotional at first because of everything my family has gone through,” said Royster. “But they encouraged me and made me realize how lucky I was to have my ovarian cancer detected early because many women don’t know until it’s in stage four and treatment options are limited.”

At the time of Royster’s diagnosis in the spring of 2017, she was attending classes and interning at Tuscaloosa’s One Place, a local family resource center. She contemplated taking a break to concentrate on her health and upcoming chemotherapy treatments in Birmingham, but she decided to stay the course after having a conversation with a person she always admired.

Kaaren pictured with her grandfather.

“My grandfather and I were really close, and he told me ‘God doesn’t put you through anything you can’t handle,’” said Royster. “I knew I had the support and prayers of so many people and that pushed me to continue with school and my internship.”

Royster’s chemotherapy started shortly after detection. She would drive to Birmingham every Monday morning for radiation treatments and drive back to Tuscaloosa to work at TOP that afternoon. Although the medications and traffic took a toll on her, Royster’s perseverance shined at TOP, where she would serve clients by providing emergency food and clothing through referrals and attend court on behalf of juveniles and their families, among other duties. She also volunteered to assist in childcare, something she was not required to do as part of the internship.

“We were blessed to have Kaaren as an intern,” said Torre McDonald, volunteer/intake coordinator at TOP. “She greeted everyone with a smile, was willing to help out anywhere she was needed, and made sure she not only completed anything she was assigned, but went above and beyond while doing so.”

Aside from receiving encouragement from the staff at TOP, Royster also credits UA faculty members Dr. Cecile Komara, Dr. Sherwood Burns-Nader and Dr. Mary Curtner-Smith for providing constant support.

“I originally thought my teachers wouldn’t really pay attention to what was going on in my personal life, but that was completely false,” said Royster. “They knew about my situation and offered to help as much as they could. They were a blessing because they genuinely cared.”

Royster continued her busy schedule of treatments, class and interning through the spring. Near the end of her internship in May, Kaaren’s doctor gave her the news she and her family had been praying for. The cancer was in remission.

“I couldn’t have been happier,” said Royster. “I still take precautions and have check-ups every few months, but my doctor has assured me that my health is good.”

As Royster prepares to graduate on Friday, she says she will always remember those who uplifted her during some of the darkest days of her life.

“I’ve met so many good people during my time at UA. Growing up in Tuscaloosa, I knew what the University was about, but the people I’ve met and encountered along the way made my college experience truly special.” Kaaren Royster, graduating senior

Royster will continue her education in a joint social work program through UAH and Alabama A&M University with the goal of returning to The Capstone to work on a doctoral degree. She hopes to one day work as a counselor supporting women who have PCOS and ovarian cancer.