UF student with stage 4 cancer graduates with 4.0 GPA

August 7, 2014

GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- After 600 hours of chemotherapy, 63 nights in the hospital and five years in college, one determined student is graduating from the University of Florida.

What’s more, he’s graduating with highest honors: a perfect 4.0 GPA.

Todd Blake will receive his bachelor’s degree in business administration this weekend. With his summa cum laude designation and a nonprofit organization he helped create, he has proven that nothing -- not even stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma -- can stop him from living.

In fact, the 23-year-old said, the experience led him to what he believes may be his true passion: entrepreneurship. He leaves UF hopeful he can turn leading his nonprofit, the Live for Today Foundation, into a full-time job.

“You can accomplish anything, even though you have obstacles to overcome,” he said.

A Jacksonville native who attended Nease High School (“where Tim Tebow went,” he said), Blake 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 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 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.”

He found his calling. The more time he spent in hospitals, the more Blake saw the lack of support young adult cancer patients received. Childhood cancer patients had social programs like the Make-a-Wish Foundation, but what happened to them when they turned 18?

With two friends who also battled cancer, Blake created the Live for Today Foundation, aimed at helping 18-to-35-year-olds with cancer feel empowered and fulfilled. The nearly 30-person group attends Jacksonville Jaguars football games, does yoga together and takes painting classes. Last year, they threw a Halloween party at a pub.

“Our support events really do help,” Blake said, adding that it’s not only for current cancer patients. “Some survivors that join may be physically disabled or have late effects from childhood cancer … For some of them, it’s the one social thing they look forward to every month.”

The organization’s mantra is, of course, “live for today.” For Blake, that 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 advisor, 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.

His achievement is tremendous, said Brian Ray, the director of the Heavener School of Business.

“It’s simply a testament to both his academic abilities but, more importantly, his determination and drive to succeed regardless of the challenge,” Ray said.

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.