RISING ABOVE: UF Alumnus Battling Stage 4 Cancer Helps Other Patients ‘Live for Today’

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This story is part three of a three-part profile series titled Rising Above.

Six hundred hours of chemotherapy, 63 nights in the hospital, 30 days of radiation and two bone marrow transplants. It’s not what high school seniors plan for when they think of college life, but for Jacksonville native Todd Blake, it became a stark reality.

Todd was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2009, when he was 18 and a freshman at the University of Florida. A few months into the semester, he began waking up with night sweats and noticed lumps in his neck and armpit. He didn’t realize the severity of his symptoms until he went home and described them to his parents.

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Throughout his treatment, Todd had to do a lot of studying in the hospital. (Courtesy: Todd Blake)

Doctors diagnosed Todd with stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a cancer that attacks the immune system. He dropped his courses, moved out of his dorm and began chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville. After eight months of chemo, Todd’s condition began to improve. His family threw him a “done-with-chemo” party, and he began planning his return to UF for the fall 2010 semester.

But about a week before he was scheduled to leave for Gainesville, a scan revealed the cancer in his lung was back and had grown quickly.

“That was the worst day of my life,” Todd, 23, said. “I was very hopeful during the first round of treatment that I’d be cured and go back to normal, and I was hanging on to all the things in my life that I wanted to go back to, but when that happened I really had to let go. … Once you get diagnosed with a life-threatening illness, you never go back.”

***

Some people questioned the decision to get married when he was already so sick, Todd said, but it made perfect sense to those who knew him and his wife-to-be, Maja. The two met as freshmen at Nease High School in Jacksonville, but they went their separate ways in college (Maja went to Florida State University). Despite being at different schools, they were drawn together during their freshman year. Maja’s stepfather was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor right after Todd was diagnosed, bringing them both back home that semester.

“I think we both realized that we were just a lot different than our friends in that situation,” Todd said. “It was this weird bonding moment that you wouldn’t wish upon anybody, but it ended up being a really significant event that brought us together.”

As Todd prepared for his second round of treatment, both he and Maja knew they wanted be on this journey together. He asked her to marry him. Maja said yes, but it was a difficult and conscious decision they made together.

“We talked about everything that could happen, and it really sucked because you had to live out all of those details,” Maja said. “At the time we got engaged, we thought Todd maybe had a year and a half left, and he was about to go into a transplant which had a 50-percent fatality rate, I think. So we were just very realistic that there was a really high chance that he could pass away soon, and if not soon, then in the next few years.”

Maja moved out to Seattle with Todd for that transplant. He describes it as one of his worst seasons health-wise, but said he couldn’t have done it without her.

Despite his cancer, Todd’s attitude is to take one day at a time and make each day the best it can be. He has come to terms with his own health, but he is more afraid of the loved ones he would leave behind should the clinical trials stop working one day.

When he thinks about that potential and the legacy of his life, he asks himself a question: “Did I leave it all in a good situation … [is it] better or worse?” If he starts something, Todd wants to finish it and finish it well. It is part of why the decision to marry was not one he and Maja took for granted.

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Maja and Todd on their wedding day in St. Augustine (Courtesy: Todd Blake)

“I think it’s hard to like always be a little bit afraid of the next commitment, because you don’t know if you can follow through with it,” he said. “So that’s probably the hardest thing of everything — like, I can’t commit to having kids. I could never see it through.”

Todd and Maja married on June 15, 2013, in the garden of an old house in St. Augustine. The ceremony was small, intimate. Their families and close friends who watched them exchange their vows understood the gravity of the moment. They understood what “in sickness and in health” meant. They understood the love that brought this couple together.

“I knew that she was going to be the person that would be there through thick and thin, whatever happened,” Todd said. “And we had to face this horrible thing, but we knew we had to do it together.”

***

For Todd, finishing his degree was a priority. After he relapsed in 2010, he enrolled in UF’s Online Business Program and was able to take classes from a distance while undergoing treatment. For the most part, his professors were understanding, but the road to graduation was not easy: He took exams in hotel rooms and missed assignments because of emergency room visits.

But he did it. Five years after he was first diagnosed, Todd graduated with a bachelor’s degree in business administration in 2014 — and he finished with a 4.0 GPA.

“It was definitely symbolic for me to walk at graduation,” he said. “I just had to show people that, yes, I’ve had all this happen to me, but I’m still just as smart as I was. I may have had to switch my major, and I may have had to do all these different things to get through treatment. But I’m still just as good of a student as any student here and I can excel.”

After graduation, Todd knew he wanted to do something different. He didn’t want to “just get a regular job,” as he put it. So he started an organization, along with two friends who also battled cancer, called the Live for Today Foundation. The organization provides a community of support for young adults with cancer, with the goal of encouraging them to get out, and live.

During treatment, Todd felt isolated.

“I was in this hospital with all these older patients, and I was the only young person going through cancer treatment, that I knew of, and I felt like I needed to find other people who had cancer.”

But he did not find any support groups out there that targeted young adults.

Todd’s father reached out to people in the community and they offered unique opportunities for his son, since Todd could not experience the fun other college-age kids could. (He learned to fly an airplane and got his motorcycle license, to name a few.) That’s when Todd realized those opportunities should be available to all young adults battling cancer.

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Todd and a a group of young adults outside Everbank Field for a Live for Today trip to a Jacksonville Jaguars game. (Courtesy: Todd Blake)

The Live for Today Foundation has taken groups of young adults to NFL football games, painting classes, and the zoo. It is an opportunity for them to do something fun so they can feel like average young adults while bonding with other people with cancer, according to Todd.

“I know there’s a need for this,” he said. “There are people going through this that don’t have … hope or support. A lot of people go through this with financial difficulty, they go through this alone, they don’t have the support that I have with Maja. … That’s what we’re providing for these people.”

Live for Today Foundation is an all-volunteer organization and has fundraised about $60,000 to-date, but Todd hopes to expand outside of Jacksonville one day. His goal is to reach every young adult with cancer in the United States. He said it is his legacy.

“I would just feel like I didn’t achieve what I came here to do if I didn’t leave something behind that made the world a better place.”

About Steven Gallo

Steven is a reporter for WUFT News who may be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news @wuft.org

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