The skies over St. Augustine, Florida, were clear that May 2013 day. And for one fateful afternoon, so was 18-year-old Marissa Ierna’s mind – clear of thoughts of stalled college and career plans, of painful chemotherapy treatments and of the baseball-sized tumor wrapped around the bone, nerves and soleus muscle in the avid runner’s right calf.
For one carefree day, Ierna smiled in the face of the Stage 4 alveolar rhabdomyosarcoma (soft tissue/bone cancer) she had been diagnosed with a year before as she took control of the Cessna 210 and spent the next hour taking in the sights of the nation’s oldest city, courtesy of fellow cancer survivor, Todd Blake, and his first-of-a-kind nonprofit organization, the Live for Today Foundation.
“I was nervous, but it was such a rush,” Ierna tells PEOPLE. Two months later, she wrapped 54 weeks of chemotherapy and six weeks of photon therapy radiation and was declared cancer-free. Today, she remains in remission and credits much of her resolve and healing to her soaring experience.
“I was heading toward that last stretch in treatment where you’re like, ‘God, I just want this to end,’ ” she says. “But being up in the air, lifted away from all of the mess that you’re going through lets you take a step away from reality and think, ‘This world is beautiful.’ It was just one of those moments where you say, ‘This is what I’m living for.’ ”
Ierna’s experience illustrates the aim of the Florida-based organization, which is dedicated to helping young adult cancer patients enjoy the time they have left via custom planned adventures and social gatherings – something that Blake and Ierna say is lacking.
Blake, who was 18 and studying pre-med at the University of Florida in Gainesville when he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, knows firsthand just how important it is for cancer patients in his age group to simply connect, stay positive and have fun.
It was day one of his freshman year of high school when Blake noticed Maja Kuranz, a pretty Norwegian blonde in his English class, but it would take a year before he worked up the nerve to ask her out. After “one wildly unsuccessful” date, the two would remain casual friends – until a shared heartbreak reunited them during their first year in college.
In October 2009, Blake was diagnosed with Stage IV Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That December, Kuranz’s father was diagnosed with a rare brain tumor. The two reconnected and bonded over their shared experiences.
As the two grew closer, Blake endured two stem cell/bone marrow transplants (including one in Seattle that required emergency transport across town during a blizzard) and countless radiation and chemotherapy treatments, some performed under clinical trials. Multiple relapses took a physical and emotional toll. Still, the couple remained committed – even as doctors told Blake that his cancer had reached an incurable point.
Living for Today
The couple married in June 2013 and adopted a dog. Blake switched his major to business and graduated from UF with top honors and a 4.0 GPA.
“One of the main things I noticed during my treatment was the isolation that you feel as a young adult,” Blake tells PEOPLE. “Once you’re over 18, you’re out of that child cancer network and a lot of the programs and benefits end.”
Blake’s search for young adult-centered programs that offered wish-granting experiences or opportunities for socializing outside of the hospital setting turned up a few, including Stupid Cancer, which offers boot camps and an annual Cancer Con; and First Descents, which offers group outdoor adventures. But none offered the kind of tailored experiences that Blake felt would prove more personal and effective. That’s when he remembered something his father, a high school teacher, had done for him years before.
“He sent out a note to his fellow teachers saying, ‘My son is home. He’s missing out on college experiences. Is there anything you can suggest that would be fun?’ ” Blake says.
Suggestions poured in and Blake was soon enjoying shooting lessons with local sheriff’s officers, outings on the water with a fishing guide and one fateful flight in a Cessna 210 with pilot Harry Rusham.
“These were fun, unique experiences that helped take my mind off my treatment,” Blake recalls. “When I relapsed for the first time and really started to understand that my condition was life-threatening … I realized that what I needed was to give back, to have a higher purpose.”
Those adventurous experiences inspired Blake to start Live for Today in 2012. The next year, Ierna became the first recipient of the organization’s signature “Life Adventures” program, piloting the same Cessna 210 that Blake had flown.
The program offers a range of highly customized experiences, including hot air balloon rides over Napa Valley, Costa Rican surf trips, climbing ancient Mayan ruins in Belize and spending a day with the Chicago Cubs.
One upcoming Life Adventure will take a 27-year-old classically trained percussionist whose music education was interrupted by intense treatment of acute myeloid leukemia (chemotherapy, surgeries and two bone marrow transplants) to Miami to train and play with the New World Symphony.
The organization also offers regular gatherings at area restaurants and tickets to concerts, sporting events and attractions.
Planning for the Future
Thanks to an experimental treatment, a new PD1 inhibitor developed by Merck & Co., Blake is cancer-free.
“It’s a total miracle,” Blake says. “I thought I had a year or less. Now, my future has been extended indefinitely.”
Blake and his wife, Maja, who now works as a clinical trial coordinator for Jacksonville’s Mayo Clinic, are also sharing new adventures of their own, including a recent 12-hour, 22-kilometer mountain climb in Norway.
“It was brutal, but it was symbolic,” Blake says. “In a moment like that, you realize that something like cancer can be a blessing in disguise. You mature and learn so much about what it truly means to live.”