GAINESVILLE, Fla. - After 600 hours of chemotherapy, 63 nights in the hospital and five years in college, one determined Jacksonville native is graduating from the University of Florida.
Todd Blake, 23, will receive his bachelor's degree in business administration Saturday with a summa cum laude designation (4.0 GPA).
Blake was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma when he was 18 and a freshman at UF. He thought after a few rounds of chemotherapy he'd be cancer-free. But that hasn't been the case.
That's why Blake told News4Jax on Friday that every new day is a chance to make a difference, not only in his own life but in the lives of other young adults dealing with disease.
"It's not something many young people face or many old people face until the end," Blake said. "So I've had a lot of time to think about dying, the process of going through this, and the perspective I've gained on how to live because of that."
Blake, who attended Nease High School, was the fourth in his family to attend UF. He intended to take engineering and pre-med courses.
But a few months into his freshman year, Blake (pictured with his wife, Maja) started getting sick.
He lost 15 pounds. He woke up with night sweats. He found lumps in his neck and left armpit.
Doctors diagnosed him with stage 4 Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the immune system. It is typically curable, but due to Blake's advanced stage, he needed treatment fast. He dropped his courses, moved out of Jennings Hall and started chemotherapy at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville.
Eight months of chemo improved his condition -- for a while. He even planned to return to UF for the fall 2010 semester. Then, a week before he was scheduled to leave for Gainesville, Blake got sick again. The gravity of the situation hit him hard.
"The first year was kind of, ‘Just get past this and get back to normal,' and then I relapsed," he said. "When you relapse, you realize you could actually die … and it gets a little more real."
With limited options, Blake enrolled in UF's Online Business Program. He was in a self-described "mad scramble to find purpose" in his life -- until he took William Rossi's entrepreneurship class.
"It kind of lit something inside of me," Blake said. "I didn't just want to go out and get a regular job -- I wanted to start something myself."
What he started, along with two friends who also battled cancer, was the Live for Today Foundation, a group that gets young adults with cancer together not just to sit around and talk but to get out, and live.
"We've gone to Jaguars games (pictured), Suns games. We've had painting classes," Blake said. "We just try to get young adults together to do something fun so they can feel like regular young adults and meet other people with cancer and bond."
"The future's kind of robbed from you as anyone that has cancer but especially a young adult because you're trying to start your life or go to school or start your career and figure out what's next," Blake said. "So I've been forced to live in fast forward a little bit."
For Blake, "living for today" meant finishing his degree.
Though his professors were understanding, completing the coursework was difficult, especially when emergency room visits made him miss assignments. At times, Blake asked himself what the point was -- there was no guarantee he'd live to see graduation.
But to satisfy himself and lead by example, he persevered.
He read operations management textbooks in hospital beds; he took international business exams in hotel rooms. He underwent two bone marrow transplants and 18 days of radiation. He even wrote an honors thesis (meeting the deadline became "a crisis," but his adviser, Kent Malone, stayed up until midnight reading it so Blake could submit in time).
And he did it. Blake took his last final Tuesday, a few hours after a chemotherapy session.
"You can only do what you have control over," Blake said. "Make the most of it and enjoy it along the way. Yes, I don't know how many days I have left on this planet, but you have to make them purposeful and enjoy them."
Planning for the future is impossible, Blake said, but he knows exactly what he wants to do.
"Enjoying the real world, being with people you love and living for today -- that's what it boils down to," he said. "It's kind of cheesy, but I do believe in it."
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