KOKOMO, Ind. — In Nick Sears' darkest days, hospitalized after surgery for a rare form of cancer, the thought of graduating on time was what kept him going forward.
Commencement was in the back of his mind as he slowly recovered from treatment for thymoma, a cancer that begins in the thymus, a small organ under the sternum. He spent three weeks in the IU Health Simon Cancer Center, gathering strength first to walk just a few steps, and then to complete laps around the hospital.
As he grew stronger, he started exercising on a stationary bike, determined to go home to Kokomo ready to graduate on time. That goal gave him something to focus on besides cancer during his three weeks in the hospital.
"The cancer diagnosis was terrifying," he said. "Knowing I just needed to finish these two classes gave me a goal to attain. With everything that has happened, it gave me something to strive for, and another reason to fight."
Now cancer-free, Sears is completing the classes he needs to earn his marketing degree from Indiana University Kokomo, and says Commencement will mean more to him than he ever imagined.
"It's going to be one of the best days of my life," said Sears, 25. "I feel deeply appreciative for it. Having cancer has completely changed my views. I've learned to appreciate everything I have more than I used to. I'm a lot happier. All around, my attitude has changed completely."
Sears realized something was wrong as early as September 2012. He collapsed several times, and had no strength. He suspected a pinched nerve, but tests run by several doctors yielded no clues. Then, in December, he was referred to a neurologist, who diagnosed him with thymoma.
He finished the fall semester, and then had surgery January 15 at the IU Health Simon Cancer Center in Indianapolis. Doctors removed a tumor the size of an egg from his chest, along with part of his heart sac and part of his right lung.
He recently received good news, that his cancer was a slow-growing form, and he will not have to go through chemotherapy and radiation.
"I'm happy this is gone," he said. "My strength is returning, and my energy level and my mental clarity are returning. I am so ready to get back to classes, and to my job. I can actually get out and enjoy my life now."
Sears works for Sam's Club, an opportunity he gained by participating in the Enactus student organization. He started as an intern, and now works at the Kokomo store. His goal is to build a career with the organization, eventually managing a store and then working in marketing at the corporate level.
His Enactus friends have supported him through the surgery and recovery, he said, with visits, cards, notes, phone calls, and posts on his Facebook page.
"I received a lot of cards, and some of them came to visit me," he said. "I've had a lot of e-mails, texts, and support with my classes. I just appreciated their friendship, knowing they were supporting me while I was in the hospital."
Indiana University Kokomo serves north central Indiana.