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Carmen’s Journey: How a mom of seven survived cancer and graduated near the top of her class at ISU-Meridian

May 8, 2018

Photo of Carmen French
Carmen French decorated her graduation cap with flowers and inspirational lyrics from a favorite song.

BOISE—When 51-year-old Carmen French walked across the stage to receive her diploma May 7 at Idaho State University’s commencement in Boise, one thought was racing through her mind.

“We did it!” said French who received a master’s degree in clinical mental health counseling. Her husband Jase and five of their seven children were in the audience at the Boise Centre cheering her on.

Adding to the excitement was the announcement that she had been selected the top honoree for the ISU-Meridian Student Excellence Award.

French had dreamed about this day for three years—back when she first applied to the counseling program at ISU-Meridian. “But I had no idea I’d face an extra challenge,” she said.

That extra challenge came Oct. 17 when French was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer after discovering a lump in her right breast. “It was totally unexpected and out of the blue,” she recalled.

French started treatment immediately—five months of rigorous chemotherapy and medication, followed by an elective double mastectomy March 28 to reduce the chances of the cancer developing in her left breast.

Exhausted and often in pain, she persevered, maintaining a 3.98 grade point average, mentoring classmates, conducting research and cementing her reputation as a rising star in the counseling program.

 “My calling in life”

Born in southern California and raised in the Bay Area, French had always dreamed of being a mental health counselor. She wanted to help those who were struggling in their own lives, to give them the tools to chart a personal path toward  self-discovery and healing.

“This is my calling in life, to definitely help others,” she said. 

French earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology at Brigham Young University and worked as a licensed social worker in Utah before moving to Boise more than two decades ago. After raising five girls and two boys— who range in age from 25 to 11—French decided to return to college to pursue a counseling career.

As a student clinician in ISU’s nationally renowned counseling program, she has provided pro bono and low-cost counseling services to members of the Treasure Valley community and organized advanced training workshops for students, faculty and ISU counseling alumni.  She currently works at Ambitions of Idaho which specializes in behavioral health and developmental disability services for children, adults and families. Eventually, she’d like to counsel war veterans.

“Carmen embodies excellence as a student, a counselor and a contributor to our community,” wrote a professor who nominated her for the 2018 ISU-Meridian Student Excellence Award for academic achievement and community service.

“An obstacle, not a detour”

People often ask French how she had the physical and emotional stamina to complete a rigorous academic program while fighting for her life. A self-described go-getter, French said dropping out of school was never an option. She drew inspiration from her 23-year-old daughter, treated nine years earlier for a deadly and rare type of cancer called Ewing sarcoma that occurs in bones or the soft tissue around them.

“She is our miracle. I knew if she could do it I could do it,” said French, noting her daughter is healthy today and the mother of a 1-year-old.

French recalls driving to the Meridian campus each day and navigating the maze of road construction signs in the rapidly growing Treasure Valley. She’d follow the detour signs which would eventually lead her to her destination, a road trip that became a metaphor for her battle against cancer.

“I never considered my diagnosis as an obstacle, but a detour,” she said.

A detour that has helped her navigate her own path toward self-discovery and healing.