University of Wisconsin Oshkosh student Stewart Atkinson has overcome incredible hardship to earn his bachelor’s degree.
As the graduating senior’s time at UW Oshkosh comes to a close, he can’t help but reflect on how he’s overcome a frightening cancer diagnosis in 2014—his first semester on campus—and his journey since.
“I’ve had every single reason to quit, stop, take time, not go back to college, play the victim,” the radio TV film major said. “But I’ve turned it into a positive.”
A native of Portage, Atkinson is ready to graduate and is hoping to secure his next opportunity.
He has been a voice on WRST, the campus radio station, as well as the host on Stew’s Picks on The Score Friday mornings. Recently, he was hired by Radio Plus in Fond du Lac (affiliated with WTCX/WFDL Radio) and Oshkosh Media, for area high school sports coverage.
Atkinson’s greatest moment in broadcasting, to date, came when he called the UW Oshkosh men’s basketball national championship March 21, 2019–exactly a year removed from chemotherapy.
He teared up that day in Fort Wayne, Indiana, considering how far he had come.
Janice Atkinson, of Portage, who spent many nights with her grandson at the hospital, is planning to attend the Midyear Commencement ceremony on Saturday, Dec. 14. She knows it will be emotional when Stewart’s name is read.
“I’m real happy for him,” she said. “Some days I didn’t think we were going to get to this point.”
His father, Aaron Atkinson, also of Portage, said commencement will be the end of a long journey for his son—one he’s been part of every step of the way and one that brought family members closer.
“I never went to college myself,” Aaron said. “For him to get to the finish line—it’s rewarding.”
Melinda (Atkinson) McCauley ‘17, Stewart’s older sister who resides in Edgerton, is a UWO alumna of the College of Nursing. She is hoping to watch her brother graduate Saturday at Kolf Sports Center.
“I think it’s amazing,” she said. “He was in the hospital for a year. To come back to college and graduate is a huge accomplishment.”
No idea how sick he was
Atkinson recalls going to the Student Health Center at UWO after an extended stretch of feeling sick and struggling to make it through his classes. He had awoken Nov. 12, 2014―it was a Wednesday ― with shooting pain in his left shoulder. He wondered if he had slept in a bad position the night before.
That day in class, he recalled being “super-hot, dripping in sweat.” The left area of his stomach was hurting as he made his way to another class.
After meeting with staff at the Student Health Center, he was advised to get further evaluation at a hospital. He found himself in a cab on his way to the emergency room at Aurora Medical Center.
A CT scan showed a greatly enlarged spleen. Based on blood test results, doctors suspected cancer.
Atkinson’s sister, Melinda, then a student, came to the hospital after her classes that afternoon. His dad and grandma drove to Oshkosh, as did his mom. Late that night, Atkinson was taken to UW’s American Family Children’s Hospital in Madison, where it was confirmed he had ALL (Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia―a leukemia usually diagnosed in children).
The first-year student with a room at Donner Hall, was forced to medically withdraw from school.
He would start 3.5 grueling years of procedures and treatments.
He was treated with one year of intense chemotherapy and then 2.5 years of maintenance chemotherapy that consisted of oral pills every day followed by an infusion in Madison one Friday a month. He lost 80 pounds in the process.
He was granted a few days at home for Thanksgiving 2014, but the visit was derailed when an infection started affecting his major organs. He remained in the hospital for several more months.
Atkinson missed school during semesters in fall 2014, spring 2015 and fall 2015.
In February 2016, he began commuting to UW-Baraboo, a two-year campus 30 minutes from his father’s home. He started classes a week after he stopped using a walker to get around. He took 13 credits on campus and three online and earned a 3.5 GPA—all while continuing chemotherapy and traveling monthly to Children’s Hospital in Madison.
He completed one more semester at Baraboo.
Atkinson wasn’t planning to return to Oshkosh, but decided the RTF program that he calls the “best in the state” was worth it.
He lived at Taylor Hall as he continued oral chemotherapy each day and monthly trips to Madison. He admitted he had a lot of pain and needed to take pain-killers constantly.
Chemotherapy that began in November 2014, finally ended in March 2018.
But there was one more hurdle in his medical journey. The side-effects of treatment caused issues with his right hip and Atkinson, who had just turned 22, endured a complete hip replacement the summer of 2018.
“It really takes a lot to put me in a bad mood,” Atkinson said. “I really don’t worry—cancer puts everything in perspective.”
He is now focused on his future and one that includes a girlfriend, fellow UWO student Angela Tischendorf, who was drawn to him by his passion for living life and positive outlook in the face of adversity.
Tischendorf remembers seeking Atkinson’s advice at the end of her freshman year as her family struggled with her mother’s late-stage cancer.
“He would occasionally message me to see how things were going with my mom,” she said. “He was someone that cared about others even when he was going through so much himself.”
Lunch dates the next semester became pretty regular and the two have officially been a couple for a little over a year.
Tischendorf said she is “super excited to be walking the stage” this weekend with her best friend and “couldn’t be more proud of him.”
A native of Medford, she is graduating with a degree in human resources and has a full-time position waiting for her.
Tischendorf’s mother passed away in January 2019 and she will carry her picture at commencement.
Atkinson said he was inspired in his sports broadcasting career by the late Stuart Scott of ESPN, who died of cancer Jan. 4, 2015. Interestingly, Atkinson’s father and grandfather both worked as auctioneers, and Stewart represents a third generation using voice skills in a career. His father continues his work at large auto auctions around the state.
Atkinson said he uses free time to watch sports and prepare material—“you gotta have stuff to talk about”—and relaxing with Tischendorf. The Milwaukee Bucks have been “his team” ever since he was a little boy. He is predicting a NBA championship this season.
“Life is good,” he said. “I’m very satisfied and very happy where I’m at right now.”