Ryan Graham poses with Dr. Judah Friedman, an oncologist with University Hospitals, during a chemotherapy treatment in 2009. Friedman served as a doctor and friend to Graham throughout his yearlong battle with cancer.
Photo courtesy of: Dory Blakey
Ryan Graham (second from left) celebrates Mom's Weekend with his mother, Dory Blakey (center) and friends.
Photo courtesy of: Dory Blakey
Jun 3, 2011
By Monica Chapman
Like many soon-to-be college graduates, Ryan Graham refers to his days at Ohio University as the best days of his life. But the defining moments of Graham’s college experience – dates he knows by heart – have been far from ordinary, centering on his yearlong battle with cancer.
Graham’s sophomore year started off like any other. He had recently joined the College of Business, as well as the Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, where he had been elected vice president and treasurer.
"I was meeting a lot of new people. My life was going great. I wasn't really thinking about anything. I was just a college kid – the best life you could ever have. And then I noticed toward the end of fall quarter, I began feeling pains," he said.
On Dec. 18, 2008, Graham was diagnosed with testicular cancer. Graham remembers the diagnosis like it was yesterday.
“It was like fast motion and slow motion at the same time. I didn't know what to say; I didn't know what to do. I just froze there," he said.
Subsequent tests confirmed the diagnosis, and surgery was recommended as soon as possible. The hour-long outpatient procedure was scheduled for Dec. 23, and Graham assumed the issue would then be resolved.
"I thought I'd have surgery and have a week or so and come back to school and recover,” he recalled.
One week later, Graham was confronted with devastating news: the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes.
According to the National Cancer Institute, the five-year relative survival rate for all men with testicular cancer is 95 percent. In the cancer spectrum, that is good news; it is one of the most curable forms of cancer. But for Graham, then 19, the survival rate was a rude awakening.
“It's a great percentage, and most people do make it. But, you know, somebody telling you that you have a certain percentage chance to live, it really hits you," he said.
Three months of intense chemotherapy followed, causing Graham to miss winter quarter of his sophomore year. And the treatments eventually took their toll. By the end of January, Graham’s white blood cell count dropped just above 200, landing him in the hospital for five consecutive days.
But Graham was not alone, thanks to a large family network of support. His brother, Gary, then a junior at Ohio University, traveled home nearly every weekend to visit. Graham also leaned on his grandfather, who was simultaneously battling prostate cancer. The two even shared the same urologist.
But Graham said it was his mother who saw him through to the end.
"My mom was there every single day,” he said. “Every single minute of every single hour of every single day, she was there. She wouldn't let me do this by myself. She was my angel through everything. I literally couldn't do it without her. We are closer than any mother and son could be."
Back at Ohio University, Graham’s fraternity brothers were also rallying support. Through “Cuts for Cancer,” Phi Gamma Delta members collected donations and pledges to shave their heads in honor of Graham. The event raised more than $3,000 for the American Cancer Society and a local cancer victim.
Meanwhile, Graham’s chemotherapy was proving successful.
March 21, 2009, marked his final chemotherapy treatment – which was widely celebrated by Graham’s friends and family. Two days later, he returned to classes at Ohio University. But constant tests and scans continued to monitor his health.
Then during fall quarter of his junior year, a CAT scan detected cancer around Graham’s lymph nodes – delivering yet another blow to Graham and his family.
On Oct. 27, 2009, Graham underwent a second surgery – a 6.5-hour procedure at the Cleveland Clinic to remove all of his lymph nodes. Due to a misplaced epidural, the recovery was excruciating, Graham recalled. But nothing could prepare him for what lie ahead.
On the fourth day after his surgery, accidental overmedication caused Graham’s heart beat to temporarily cease.
"I just remember a white flash. I remember waking up, and there were 10 doctors around me and things beeping everywhere, people running in panic. I didn't know what was going on," he said.
Graham’s mother, Dory Blakey, was the first to alert doctors of her son’s condition after she noticed that he was unresponsive and blue.
“Thank God I was in the room when it happened,” Blakey said. “That entire week he was afraid to be alone in fear that he might die in his sleep.”
Following the incident, Blakey and her husband John, Graham’s stepfather, took turns staying with Graham around the clock. And true to form, Graham eventually regained his resolve. This was especially true in terms of academics.
"I noticed that all my peers were continually moving ahead with their education, and I was always falling back, and I hated that … I didn't want to lag behind any more. So I decided to come back,” he said.
Against doctor’s orders, Graham returned to the University in time to take final examinations. Too weak to carry his own books, Gary walked him to and from class. Administrators, faculty and fellow students each played a role in supporting Graham’s recovery, according to Blakey.
His academic momentum carried on. And in the summer of 2010, Graham made up additional credit hours during a study abroad experience in Brazil with the College of Business’ Global Consulting Program. While in Rio de Janeiro, Graham also had the chance to attend the World Cup.
“I was thrilled that we were able to afford him the experience and to enjoy life,” said Blakey.
Later this month, Graham expects to graduate on time, earning a degree in finance with a certificate in financial planning from the College of Business. Following graduation, he will assume a trainee position with Associated Materials, headquartered in Cleveland.
Graham said he debated referencing his medical history in job applications. But eventually, he incorporated the story into his cover letter as a testament to the challenges he has overcome.
Though hospitals and IV’s are not a part of his life these days, not a day goes by where Graham doesn’t think about his battle with cancer.
“But the more I go on, the more I feel happy. The more I feel like I'm cured,” he said. "It's a blessing in disguise. It really is. And it made me more mature. It made me more focused in life."
"I'm a better person for it,” Graham continued. “I got closer to God. I got closer to my family and friends. It made me motivated. I feel like I got a second chance at something. And I never want to take a day where I don't do anything, where I don't make an impact, whether it be in my friends' lives, my life, my family's life. I always want to make an impact."
Tips for underclassmen from cancer-survivor and soon-to-be graduate Ryan Graham: