On Labor Day weekend in 2018, near the seaside city of Trinidad, the lingcod and rockfish were biting for Slade Giles.
Just days into his Master of Business Administration program at Chico State, he enjoyed trips like this to unwind, regroup, and reset. As an undergraduate double major at the University of California, Santa Barbara—with degrees in biology-psychology and art studio—he originally dreamed of becoming a physician.
To maximize the number of people he helped, he also studied Japanese, German, Spanish, and Italian before going on to earn a Master of Public Health from Touro University California, where he also performed neuroscience research on Alzheimer’s Disease models.
“There’s so much that I want to learn, so I just try to absorb as much as I can,” Giles said. “My biggest frustration is that there’s just not enough time.”
Now, a couple hundred miles away from Chico State for the weekend, he was burdened only by two things: hooking some halibut and an intense, growing pain inside his abdomen—a pain that eventually became so alarming that he had to go to an emergency room in his home in Redding. A battery of tests revealed a diagnosis he never expected: Giles had cancer and required emergency surgery to remove several tumors—the only day of classes he missed the entire fall 2018 semester.
A difficult December followed: Family friends passed away suddenly from heart attacks and strokes. Another friend contacted Giles to talk—and died by suicide before he could respond. He endured a painful breakup. Once again, as a way to reset between semesters, Giles embarked on a surf trip along the Baja California coast. When he returned, doctors said the cancer had metastasized to his lymphatic system.
“They were worried about it spreading through my lungs and brain, so I started this really intense chemo regimen,” he said. “Most people go in for about a half-hour to two hours a day, but I was doing seven hours a day, five days a week.”
Jennifer McKee, Giles’ MBA program advisor, remembers that while enduring chemotherapy, he was adamant about continuing his classes.
“Some students shy away from a challenge, and he really leaned into life,” McKee said. “He was not going to let something like cancer scare him away from his goals and his dreams and providing that kind of legacy to others. It’s just incredible what he was able to accomplish.”
To persevere, Giles focused on his goals.
“I started with immediate goals on a day-to-day basis, especially when I was going through chemotherapy, to keep me going,” he said. “Then I focused on intermediate goals to get me through the month, and then built up to where I wanted to be in life.”
Giles took just a year-and-a-half to earn his MBA, battling cancer through most of it, and was looking forward to walking in the ceremony this spring. His inspiration, excellence in the classroom, and ability to connect with his cohort earned him honors as Commencement speaker. In spite of COVID-19 postponing in-person ceremonies, Giles remained steadfast in writing and recording his speech.
“I’m trying to give as much inspiration as I can during these times to help people realize that their investment for these last crazy couple of years has definitely been worth it,” he said. “I think we need a Commencement speech now more than ever.”
Insatiably curious, Giles is guided by the pursuit to improve life for those around him—while making the most of his own opportunities. He has spent the last 15 years as a volunteer firefighter-EMT for the Jones Valley Fire Department and was named its Firefighter of the Year in 2018.
“I’ve never had any urge to make money, but I’ve always had an urge to make a difference,” he said. “A doctor I was working with previously told me ‘You could probably help 10,000 people in your life as a physician, but you can potentially help millions of people if you continue with your dreams.’ So that’s what I’m doing, continuing with my dreams.”
His experience inside hospital settings during his MPH studies revealed an opportunity to improve medical healthcare by building a more intuitive front-end system for electronic record systems to improve patient flow.
That path led him to Chico State’s MBA program, particularly for its stellar entrepreneurial reputation and its Enterprise Information Systems option. In summer 2018, McKee attempted to reach Giles to help get things in place for his first semester.
“I found it really odd that I hadn’t heard anything from him over the summer,” she said. “He just kind of fell off the radar.”
Unbeknownst to McKee, Giles was vacationing in Thailand with no Internet access. But that trip was cut short—he received a call from the Jones Valley Fire Department that the town of French Gulch was on fire. Giles jumped on a longtail boat to Bangkok and multiple flights that delivered him to Travis Air Force Base, where he drove a rental car to Redding to help fight what became the Carr Fire.
Giles and McKee ultimately connected, and he apologized and explained why he’d been silent.
“Here he is, apologizing for going missing in action, and yet he was without Internet access and had been doing things that are far beyond worrying about what he should buy for his first semester,” McKee said. “That’s just a true testament to how he’s constantly looking for ways to help his community.”
He told her he planned on continuing in his volunteer role and ultimately fought several big fires that summer.
“I was in four fires in three days at one point, and I thought, ‘Well, it can’t get worse,’” he said.
Weeks later, Giles received the cancer diagnosis. And while he would fight it through his entire time at Chico State, it would not discourage him in any way.
“There’s so much more out there that can push you in ways you never thought you could be pushed,” he said. “When you aspire to something greater, you become something greater.”
Giles spent time as president of the Graduate Business Association and MBA liaison for the Council of Graduate Students. He made it his mission to bring the best out of those around him, connecting his cohort with other groups to maximize networking possibilities. He knew tomorrow was no guarantee for him, so he committed himself, like always, to investing in others—his fellow students.
“Time is so precious, it’s the most precious thing I have,” he said. “If you can be anything, be kind. And if you can do anything, invest in your community. You’re only as healthy as your community, and it’s the investment that always pays back interest.”
One way Giles is investing in his global community is through his GoFundMe project, called “Slade’s Cancer Fight Legacy Project.” Originally planned as a trip with his best friend to bring backpacks full of shoes to the children of Arusha, Tanzania—while also climbing 19,341-foot-high Mount Kilimanjaro—it was postponed after his cancer diagnosis. Giles shifted gears and established the legacy project to provide funding for hundreds of additional pairs of shoes. His goal is to raise $23,000 and he plans on embarking on the climb in June 2021.
A recent CT scan revealed that Giles is mostly clear of cancer—encouraging news for a young man who has inspired so many. As he embarks on a new chapter in his life, working on three ideas to change healthcare on a national scale, his focus remains on what makes him happy and the potential ways to help—instead of the cancer that made him sick.
“Through this adventure, I have never considered this being the end of me, with regards to mortality. Not even once,” he said. “There is just too much left to do.”