Raul Garcia, UC Santa Barbara class of 2015, has tried everything. Even after one craniotomy, two rounds of radiation and twelve rounds of chemotherapy, his brain cancer continues to progress. He turns 27 next month.
His doctors are recommending hospice, his older sister, Evelyn Garcia, said. But his family is not ready to give up. Raul’s doctors said he had two years to live in 2016, but he continues to fight four years later.
Flanked by his family, the former Gaucho made one last call to the medical world earlier this month in search of an effective alternative treatment. The GoFundMe started by his family to support “Raul’s Last Hope” is closing in on its $40,000 goal — roughly the out-of-pocket price for an alternative cancer treatment, Evelyn said.
Though they have yet to decide, Evelyn said the family of eight is looking at more holistic treatments, such as CBD, vitamin injections and detoxes. They want to step away from chemotherapy, she explained, and hope to make a final decision by the end of this month.
“An alternative route won’t hurt. [I’m] down for that,” Raul said in an interview with the Nexus.
“As a family, we have different opinions about it,” Evelyn said. “But I feel like ultimately it would be his decision to make, which one he wants and which one he is willing to try.”
Raul previously underwent an alternative treatment in 2016, in an attempt to remove a ganglioglioma on his right temporal lobe, three years after his first diagnosis during his junior year at UCSB. The treatment was unsuccessful. His parents, who funded the treatment with their retirement savings and a loan on their house, don’t have the means to do it again, Evelyn said.
“That was devastating for us as their children to witness that,” she added.
“[Raul] continues to be a best friend to me. I can always confide in him knowing that he gave me the best of his opinions and the best guidance he could,” Evelyn said. “We never fought.”
These days, Raul spends most of his time at home in the San Fernando Valley, exercising with his dad, talking to his friends through FaceTime and Zoom and enjoying the company of his family. A second tumor on his cerebellum, diagnosed in March 2019, eventually confined him to a wheelchair. From there, his condition took a sharp decline, Evelyn said.
Tremors, short-term memory and vision loss, seizures, a speech impediment and left-side weakness have taken over his body, Raul said to the Nexus, making everyday life a significant challenge.
Raul said he requires assistance for many daily activities, such as going to bed, going to the bathroom, eating, moving around and getting in the car, adding that he misses the days when he could drive, cook, and play Pokémon Go, his favorite video game.
The hardest part about his condition, he said in a video filmed by Evelyn, is “not being able to do things on my own.” Though his health is deteriorating quickly, Raul said he rarely thinks about dying.
“Anyone could, I guess, die, when you don’t have to have an illness,” he said. “It is more likely when you do, but I guess that’s it.”
Several of Raul’s friends spoke to the Nexus about the ways in which Raul brings joy to their lives and why their friendships with him are everlasting.
Michelle Piceno, ‘16, still remembers when she and Raul ran track together at San Fernando High School, forging a friendship through the pace of their mile times. If they weren’t running together, they were cheering each other on from the sidelines, she said.
Their paths remained parallel upon entering UC Santa Barbara as freshmen in 2011, even living in the same dorm, Santa Catalina Residence Hall. The neighboring Portola Dining Commons became the confluence of their college friendship, Piecno said, where the two would catch up over a meal and then head their separate ways. But it wasn’t until July 2018, Piecno said, when she first learned about Raul’s condition, over five years after Raul was first diagnosed.
Piceno phoned Raul for a “smoothie date,” during which he explained to her his diagnosis in a “calm” and “collected” manner.
“I remember I got very teary-eyed because when I saw him, the nerves on half of his face weren’t working anymore,” Piecno said. “So when he smiled at me, it would only be half a smile.”
“He’s always been a fighter… So when I had that conversation with him, you could tell he was sad. Who’s not going to be sad about that? But I still saw that light in his eyes and he would smile — he would reassure me that it’s going to be fine.”
Julie Camacho, a 2016 graduate of Cal State Northridge who befriended Raul in high school, recalls learning about his diagnosis while she was working as an English teacher in China. She, too, remembers Raul explaining to her his diagnosis “openly” and “calmly.”
“I was just in shock… He was just so happy all the time at [UC] Santa Barbara. He wouldn’t mention a thing and you weren’t able to see it at the time either,” she said. “It was just really shocking for me and my family as well, because they know him too.”
During their senior year, Camacho said she didn’t expect to attend her class’s prom. Raul changed that.
“I wasn’t planning on going and last minute, Raul asked me. And I was just like ‘Really, you want to go to prom?’” she said. “We got our matching colors, he got my corsage and he paid for everything. We had other friends join us and my sister drove us to the beach and it was just perfect.”
Presently, Camacho said she and a handful of friends talk to Raul through group FaceTime calls. She used to text Raul, but the cancer has taken a toll on his dexterity.
When Emily Quinlivan ‘15 looks back at her college days, Raul is always within sight; she knows him as a “friend to everybody.” The two met during their first week at UCSB where they lived on the fifth floor of Santa Catalina Residence Hall.
Quinlivan said Raul was a “goofy guy and easy to get along with” when they first met; nine years later, Raul is “one of the most loyal” friends she’s ever had. When Raul told her in 2014 that he had cancer, Quinlivan said she almost didn’t believe it.
“I remember when he told me it was kind of like ‘Oh, I have brain cancer.’ And I was like, ‘What, are you joking?’” she asked. “He said it so matter-of-fact — he wasn’t emotional about it.”
But learning about his diagnosis didn’t change much, she said, and the two continue to share a strong friendship.
She remembers most saliently the day of their “Santa Barbara sendoff,” marked by an afternoon of floating in the Pacific with children’s innertubes at Campus Point, just days before they graduated and parted ways in 2015.
“We just played in the ocean for hours and felt like kids again,” she said.
Nowadays, the two keep in contact virtually and reminisce about their college days, Quinlivan said. Although Raul’s condition has changed since college, she maintains that he is “still the great guy that we remember.”
“He’s just so full of life,” she said.
Dar Roberts, a professor in the Department of Geography at UCSB, said that seeing his former student lose out the chance to fulfill his dreams is “tragic… especially when someone’s at the beginning of their career and they have so much promise.”
Raul, who graduated with a degree in physical geography, said Roberts became his favorite professor after taking Roberts’ class on environmental optics — known equally for its abundance of math and reputation as the toughest class in the department.
“The fact that Raul really liked my class and really liked what he was taught means a lot to me,” Roberts said. “It’s what we’re in it for. We’re in it for the little things we do to change people’s lives.”
Originally an engineering major, Raul said he was “kicked out” of the department following a few bad grades. So he took to the course catalog to find the major with class requirements that were most similar to what he had already taken. He stumbled upon physical geography.
“I tried it out and I liked it,” Raul said.
But he also excelled, Roberts added, as he recounted writing Raul a letter of recommendation for an internship at NASA — to which he was later accepted.
On top of taking “every [Geographic Information Systems] and remote sensing class available” at UCSB, Raul said he entered his senior year in 2014 having undergone a craniotomy the summer before.
“I would have never known it,” Roberts said. “It was certainly not the kind of thing that he exuded in any way.”
Roberts said Raul is the student who “tried everything.” In his Winter Quarter 2014 environmental optics class, with a roster of 18 graduate and undergraduate students, Roberts said Raul finished with the second-highest undergraduate grade in the class.
“The word enthusiasm, I think more than anything else, captures the essence of Raul,” Roberts said. “There wasn’t a question he wasn’t willing to attempt.”
To James Diaz, one of Raul’s closest friends, his wit comes as no surprise.
“He was an all-arounder. He could work hard and he could play hard,” Diaz said. “And he did both.”
In their four years of living together — first in Santa Catalina Residence Hall, then in San Rafael Residence Hall, then on Sueno Road and finally on Sabado Tarde Road — Diaz said he grew accustomed to watching Raul skillfully “chalk up physics equations with a mixed drink in his hand.”
Though they met in college, they grew up mere city blocks apart in the San Fernando Valley, Diaz said. Once at UCSB, a high school rivalry ignited their friendship because “we had something so relatable right off the bat.”
Diaz couldn’t help but to grow close with Raul, he said, lauding his “ability to befriend people around him” and cast positive light in dark moments. Quinlivan said it wasn’t long until they became “two peas in a pod.”
Diaz said his college memories with Raul are plentiful and that, whether it was riding bikes along the ocean, catching sun on the roof or going to a party in I.V., the two were always having fun.
But he also remembers Raul’s first seizure in 2013 during their junior year — the first time Raul learned that something was wrong with his health.
“We were getting ready to have a party and he started saying that he was feeling off, but we’re just like, ‘You’re probably nervous because we’re going to have our first party.’ He sat down and he started sweating a lot,” Diaz said. “And then I remember him sitting next to one of our other housemates and he just started seizing out of control.”
“It scared us,” he added. “I had never seen a seizure before.”
Prior to his seizure, Raul said he remembered experiencing a pungent taste of metal in his mouth while exercising and working at the Subway in the Arbor. His doctors recommended he get an MRI of his brain, but due to both the lack of a car and access to an MRI that was eligible with his health insurance, he said he put it off.
Following his seizure, and subsequent diagnosis with brain cancer, Diaz said their relationship remained relatively the same, though Raul’s diagnosis always loomed in the background.
“I’ve always taken the approach where I don’t ignore [his diagnosis], but I’m not going to harp on it because someone going through that needs someone to take their mind off of it. The same way that he brought levity to my life back in college, I tried to return the favor during these hard times,” Diaz said.
But by 2016, things had grown more difficult. Diaz recalls the day Raul’s doctors told him he had two years left to live and the willpower it took him to support his best friend.
“When someone needs that kind of support, you gotta be there for them,” Diaz said. “If you break down, they break down. So you just bite your lip. I gave him a hug and I told him ‘It’s okay, it’s going to be alright. It’s not final yet. They’re still trying.’”
“To see someone defy a medical professional saying you have two years left and proving them wrong — well, Raul was always pretty stubborn,” he added.
The second tumor on his cerebellum not only deteriorated Raul’s health, but it also “devolved” their conversations, Diaz said. The two shifted from reminiscing about college to discussing the details of Raul’s latest doctor’s appointments.
“It’s almost like we got robbed of our normal conversations,” Diaz said.
But despite the grim conversations and relentless cancer treatments, Raul is unwavering, Diaz said, adding that the two have been “through thick and thin for almost a decade.”
“When I would try to cheer Raul up with levity, he would reciprocate that. So even for someone going through twelve rounds of chemo and brain surgery — he would always laugh with me, crack jokes with me — and he had a sense of resolve as well,” Diaz said.
Presently, Diaz and Raul keep in touch online and recently met in person to spend an afternoon together. Diaz said that every moment spent with Raul, whether virtual or in-person, is a testament to one of the “funnest, most genuine people I’ve ever met.”
“He told you what he liked. He told you what he didn’t like. He’d be stubborn sometimes, but you always knew where he stood on things. Nowadays, that’s pretty rare to find,” Diaz said.
To his friends, Raul gives levity and acceptance. To his teachers, he gave reverence and enthusiasm. And to his family, he gives love and consolation. But to those who haven’t met him, he’s just Raul.
“The world is a crazy place, and one person that could bring levity to other people is game changing and you never know who needs that,” Diaz added. “If you follow what he did, then you can be the Raul for someone else.”