JACKSONVILLE – In Todd Blake’s kitchen, a framed picture of floating rainbow hot-air balloons rests on the wall. The art brings back memories of wedding rings, a balloon ride with his new bride and the beginning of their journey into the unknown.
In the stillness of the sky on their honeymoon balloon ride, Blake and his wife, Maja, now both 23, didn’t feel any wind or hear much of anything. Blake said he could still feel the pain in his lungs from the terminal cancer, but he ignored it.
Enjoying the moment was more important.
The hospital could wait.
Blake, a Jacksonville native who lives in Jacksonville Beach, was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma about five years ago. He graduated this month from the University of Florida, receiving a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a 4.0 GPA, earning him the university’s highest honors. He went on national TV to share his story with “The Today Show.”
Blake said he realized about two years ago – after the chemotherapy stopped working, after his cancer appeared for the third time – that the disease was going to kill him. He had two choices: Give up, or live life in fast-forward mode.
He married his college sweetheart, started a foundation to help young adults with cancer, got a job at a real estate company and adopted a puppy. Saturday’s graduation was another check off his list before he moves on to new goals: to write a book, record an album with his wife, grow his faith and be the best husband possible.
He ignores the doctors’ estimates of time left – all that matters is it’s small.
That means Blake has to make every day count.
Blake won’t sugar-coat his illness. He’s past being cured. He doesn’t say that to be negative, just to state facts.
“I know that it’s inevitable, and I’ve accepted that. And it’s been a long process to accept that,” he said.
He was diagnosed a week after he moved away from his parents’ St. Johns County home and into his new home in Gainesville. The night sweats, weight loss and itchiness suddenly made sense.
Blake took medical leave from his classes and moved back to northeast Florida for eight months of chemotherapy at the Mayo Clinic.
The cancer was gone, and Blake started preparing to pick up his life where he left off.
At least, until he relapsed in the fall of 2010.
He tried a bone marrow transplant at Mayo, which worked – until it didn’t.
Then, he went to Seattle for another type of bone marrow transplant. That procedure also worked, for a little while.
All told, Blake has had 600 hours of chemotherapy, 63 days in the hospital, 18 days of radiation and two transplants. Blake and Maja are looking to move out of their third-floor apartment because they know, one day not too far away, he’ll be in a wheelchair.
Curing his cancer isn’t the point – not anymore.
“‘If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?’ And whenever the answer has been ‘No’ for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something.”
Steve Jobs gave that piece of advice to a Stanford University graduating class in 2005, a year after his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer and six years before the disease took his life.
Blake asks himself that question every day.
“I think because of all this,” he said, “I’ve been living more deliberately.”
The questions started early in his diagnosis, the ones that usually come up when faced with death: What’s the point of life? Why are we here?
When his diagnosis took a turn for the worst, he reassessed.
Questions became: How do I want to spend the time I have? What are my priorities?
He answered those questions by asking another about three years ago. At St. Augustine’s Castillo de San Marcos fort at the end of a long scavenger hunt, the woman who had stood by Blake through illness, discouragement and doubt said yes, she would marry him.
Around that time, he started taking University of Florida business courses through an online program and found a passion for entrepreneurship. The evening he took his last final exam, he had spent the morning and afternoon at the hospital receiving treatment.
In 2012, Blake started an organization in Jacksonville, Live for Today Foundation, to grant wishes and provide community-building activities for young adults with cancer or who had previously battled cancer. The foundation got its first major boost at One Spark 2013 and has granted wishes for three people so far: flying lessons, a hotel stay and spa vacation and animal sanctuary visits.
In 2013, Blake and Maja married at the historic Sanchez House in St. Augustine. Their excitement was almost interrupted when Blake went into the hospital a week before the wedding, but he was out in time for their big day.
This year, he got a job working part time as a data administrator for sales at NAI Hallmark Partners, a commercial real estate firm. Now that he officially has his bachelor’s, he said, he plans to move into real estate brokerage.
A few weeks ago, they brought a new family member home, a three-month old rescue puppy, Louie.
Louie bounds across their apartment, and puppy-proofing a house full of medicine hasn’t been the easiest. Blake’s guitars and mandolin, bolted to the wall, are out of Louie’s reach, but hound dogs grow.
They decided now was the right time to own a dog, cancer or no cancer.
On a larger scale, getting married followed the same logic.
Maja Blake, a Florida State University graduate who works at the Mayo Clinic researching blood cancers, said deciding to get engaged at 20 was about putting their fears aside.
She remembered thinking: “It’s just not fair to us to give up getting married, just because you’re sick.”
Married life has been rough with his illness, they admit. Planning anything is nearly impossible because Blake will get sick unexpectedly, and she is sometimes his wife and sometimes his caretaker.
“Even if it ends early, I wouldn’t trade it for anything,” she said.
Across their apartments are mementos of their life together and their philosophy: a cross that hangs over the kitchen sink, helium balloons that read “Congratulations” for Blake’s graduation and Maja Blake’s admission to graduate school.
The most powerful reminder is their hot-air balloon picture.
The art, which Todd had made as a first-anniversary gift, reminds them of the first movie they saw as a couple, “Up.” Next to the hot air balloons on the picture are the words “Adventure is Out There,” the movie’s iconic mantra.
In one scene from the Pixar movie, the movie follows the main characters Carl and Ellie as they meet as children, get married and grow old together.
At the end of the song, Carl is left reminiscing on Ellie’s life after she passes away when he finds a note from her: “Thanks for the adventure. Now, go have a new one.”
The Blakes played the score to that scene at their wedding as the bridal procession.
“It was the happiest thing,” Maja Blake said.
“It’s kind of symbolic of getting out there and living,” Todd Blake said.