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Professor's love for UNCW the medicine that soothes him

Published: Nov. 17, 2017 at 7:22 PM EST|Updated: Nov. 20, 2017 at 1:04 PM EST
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Dr. Figueroa attending a UNCW men's basketball game (Source: WECT)
Dr. Figueroa attending a UNCW men's basketball game (Source: WECT)
Dr. Figueroa at 2016 CAA Tournament (Source: Bob Bonner)
Dr. Figueroa at 2016 CAA Tournament (Source: Bob Bonner)

WILMINGTON, NC (WECT) - Dr. Jorge Figueroa has been teaching public health at UNCW for the past nine years, but he may be the University's best-kept secret. Seemingly everywhere he goes he hears the same thing, "aren't you that guy?'"

Yes, he is that guy.

He's the guy with the bulging biceps, each adorning a UNCW Seahawks logo, and he's the guy that's hard to miss at each home men's basketball game.

"Whenever I have a student who is in any sport, I try to attend at least one of their events," Figueroa said. " I don't know why basketball, in particular, has risen to the top, but it's my way of showing my students my commitment to them."

Figueroa already had the old logo on one arm and was approached by the University in 2015 about having the new one tattooed on the other for the big unveiling.

"They had me sign all of these confidentiality agreements and non-disclosure forms, and so I had to schedule the tattoo with the tattoo artist, take the forms for him to sign and he had to destroy any drawings or etchings of it," Figueroa explained.

The unveiling came prior to the Elon game in 2015 several years after Figueroa was hired. Based on what he said during his interview, it's not surprising that he's a walking billboard for the university.

"You know it's funny, when I interviewed for the job the question came up, you know - am I here to stay or is this just another thing," said Figueroa. "My answer was I planned on dying here."

That statement might not be far from the truth.

Just as most people only know him as "that guy" and not as a college professor - even fewer know Jorge Figueroa has stage four cancer.

"I was diagnosed at this point probably seven years ago at a routine physical, so I wasn't aware that I was sick," Figueroa said. "With treatment they thought I could probably get a couple of years, they gave me less than a five percent chance of making it five years. It's a lymphoma so it really effects your whole body, there's no part of me that doesn't have cancer."

The diagnosis was splenic marginal zone lymphoma, a very rare form of cancer accounting for less than two percent of non-Hodgkins lymphomas. Figueroa has beaten that five-year diagnosis -  two rounds of chemotherapy have likely bought him extra time, but those and the cancer are taking their toll.

"My bad days are when I hurt so much I can't sleep at all and that even in the hopes of turning over to have hope that there's a more comfortable, less painful position that I don't even have the strength to roll over," Figueroa said.

That's where his work comes in.

"I frequently say that the only time that I'm not in pain is when I'm in the classroom," he explained.

Through that pain, Figueroa realized while facing the end of your life you can still have a purpose - for him, it begins and ends at UNCW.

"I bleed teal and it's all the way through me," he said. "When I walk into the classroom I'm plugged up and I come out of class sometimes so charged up with energy that it's not just a downhill from the beginning of the day kind of way. So yes, by the end of the day I'm pretty exhausted but I definitely have those moments where I am just flying high."

Day by day, the place where his career was born, helps give life to Figueroa.

"The place I said I will die in one day is now keeping me alive, absolutely, absolutely," Figueroa said.

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