In graduating Saturday, UF student completes an arduous journey
Published: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, August 7, 2014 at 7:23 p.m.
Todd Blake plans to walk across the O'Connell Center stage to pick up his bachelor's degree on Saturday, five years after he was diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin's Lymphoma and had to withdraw from his first semester at the University of Florida.
He could stay home in Jacksonville Beach, where he lives with his wife, Maja, but he's determined to be here in Gainesville and receive that degree in person. It's part of a journey that began with a diagnosis in 2009 that changed his life, and gave it purpose.
“Walking is a big important part of this,” said Blake, 23. “It's very symbolic.”
Graduating from the Warrington College of Business Administration's online program summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA was personally fulfilling, but also a challenge to himself -- to prove he could do it, Blake said.
“Hopefully it will prove inspiring to young adults going through the same thing, and healthy people who need some perspective,” Blake said. “Telling my story is part of the reason I wanted to walk.”
Blake hopes to share his story with other participants in the online program. And he'll get to share it with a much broader audience when he appears on the Today Show Monday morning.
Inspired by an entrepreneurship class taught by UF professor Bill Rossi, Blake also has started his own nonprofit foundation, Live for Today, as a support group not only to help other young adults deal with cancer, but to foster support and healthy living.
“Instead of sitting in chairs talking about our problems, we do stuff,” he said. They take painting classes, go on ghost tours in St. Augustine, go out to dinner and sporting events. They have a wish-granting program.
“The whole point is to get young adults out to do something fun, make friends with other cancer survivors and bond naturally,” Blake said.
An online degree in business administration wasn't his first choice when he came to UF in fall 2009 after graduating eighth in his class in the International Baccalaureate Program at Nease High School in Ponte Vedra. With his strong interest in science and math, Blake said, he wanted to study medicine or engineering. He enrolled in UF's honors program.
About a month and a half into his first semester, however, Blake started “developing some bizarre symptoms.” He was itchy, soaked the bed with night sweats, and had a lump half the size of a tennis ball under his armpit.
After going to the student health clinic and a local doctor, Blake's parents got him into the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. It was there on Oct. 9, 2009, he was diagnosed with stage IV Hodgkin's Lymphoma -- the most advanced stage where the cancer has gotten beyond the lymphatic system and into other internal organs.
His father, Randy Blake, was a former dentist who went to UF's dental school and had practiced for many years before retiring to teach chemistry at Ponte Vedra High. That schoolteacher's health insurance policy wound up being a lifesaver for Blake.
The treatment so far: 63 hospital nights, over 600 hours of chemotherapy, two bone marrow transplants, 18 days of radiation. The cost of all his medical treatment is well over $2 million, possibly close to $3 million, he said. One treatment alone was $1 million.
Getting diagnosed with cancer was bad enough, but he also had to give up his newfound freedom at 18, Blake recalled. “I had just moved into the dorms, and had freedom from my parents,” Blake said. “It was very hard to leave Gainesville and move back home.”
The doctors and everyone around him tried to downplay the seriousness of his cancer, telling him it was beatable. He came to think this was a bump in the road that he would overcome, and return to school after that first round of treatment.
After the first round of chemo, the doctors gave him a PET scan, and it looked as though most of the cancer was gone, except for a node on his lung. The doctors gave him a rest and he enjoyed the summer with his family, thinking he'd be going back to UF that fall.
A week or two before he was scheduled to come back to Gainesville for school, Blake relapsed.
“That was definitely the worst day of my life,” he said. “I had a little bit of a mentality that I would get through this, and then hit with the notion this was real and I could die, soon, and not in the distant future.”
The disease dictated the pattern of his life. Instead of the four seasons of summer, spring, fall and winter, Blake's year was measured by a cycle of diagnosis, treatment, remission and reappearance.
“I always responded well to the chemo, and have a clean scan,” he said. “Three months later, in the fall, I would relapse. “
He was disappointed to once again drop the classes he had enrolled in. He gave up the notion of being on campus.
His mother, Nancy Blake, suggested he enroll in UF's online business program. She had gotten her business degree that way and said he should look into it. He saw that he could get a business degree online while undergoing treatment and living at home.
He also came up with a bucket list. He went fishing on a local TV show. He flew a small airplane. He got his motorcycle license. He shot guns with the St. Johns County Sheriff's Office SWAT team.
Blake had his first stem cell transplant in February 2011, followed by more chemo, followed by another relapse. His doctors recommended Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center in Seattle, where surgeons would transplant his father's stem cells into Blake hoping it would strengthen his immune system and kill the cells.
His girlfriend took the fall 2011 semester off from her studies at Florida State University to look after Blake.
“By the time we went to Seattle, I just knew that I wanted to marry her,” Blake said. They married last June in St. Augustine. They have their own place in Jacksonville Beach. She got her bachelor's degree in biochemistry and works at the Mayo Clinic. They got a puppy.
He had the second stem cell transplant in January 2012.
It was a slow recovery, punctuated by occasional trips around Seattle. The hospital had a program where they gave cancer patients tickets to local attractions. They went to the Space Needle. They saw a Mariners game.
Blake returned from Seattle looking for a purpose to his life. The entrepreneurial class with Bill Rossi helped him put together all his experiences as a young adult fighting cancer into a vision.
“He was the first person in the business program that got me excited about business,” Blake said of Rossi, who is a professor of entrepreneurship at UF. “He inspired me that it doesn't have to be a desk job doing accounting.”
Rossi, who has never met Blake, said he got a moving email from the student. Rossi said he was moved that he connected with Blake in such a profound way.
“It is the most gratifying thing to have happened to me in a while,” Rossi said.
Rossi said he tries to teach that entrepreneurship is about more than starting a company but a mindset about how you conduct your life, interact with other people to create value whether it's through a social enterprise, or running a political campaign or starting a club.
“Todd got it,” Rossi said.
Blake said he was also grateful to his advisers, particularly Miranda Morris, and his honors thesis advisor Kent Malone, who went through three days of revisions with Blake to get his thesis turned in on time.
At some point post-transplant, Blake understood that his medical team had shifted from finding a cure to figuring out how to manage his disease long-term. Since then, he has been on a journey of acceptance and finding fulfillment, figuring out a purpose for his life.
“My life is cancer. That is a major part of it,” Blake said. “There are a million other things I'm doing to make me happy.”
Things like running his foundation. Working part-time at a commercial real estate broker. Being with his wife.
The future is uncertain, but that's true for anybody, he said. His treatment left him sterile, but he stored his sperm ahead of time, in case he and Maja ever do want to have a family.
“I definitely have come to the point of acceptance,” Blake said. “It took a long time. A lot of things happened for me to come to that point. I am just trying to live purposefully, to be fulfilled, to find the things that make you happy every day and not get caught up in a career. My purpose in life is to continue to tell my story, maybe write a book. Obviously there is quite a lot of material.”
Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.