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More than 1,800 undergraduates gathered in Thompson-Boling Arena today to walk across the stage at commencement, but graduating accounting major Paul Whited couldn’t be there.

He was at UT Medical Center, embarking on another round of chemotherapy to fend off the cancer he’s been battling since January 2016.

The special day was not to be ignored, however; since Whited couldn’t go to commencement, commencement came to him.

Whited’s parents, along with oncologist Wahid Hanna and Haslam College of Business faculty member Anita Hollander, gathered with him at UT Medical Center, and their celebratory moment was broadcast live to the commencement crowd when his name was called in Thompson-Boling Arena.

The fight continues

Whited, 25, was born in Nashville. When he was two, he and his half-sister were adopted by a family in Maynardville, Tennessee. The family moved to Knoxville when Whited started his studies at UT in the fall of 2011. He’s now living with his parents so they can help him through his treatments.

Whited came into UT as a computer science major but changed his major to accounting after three years. While the switch was prolonging his studies, things were going smoothly until January 2016.

The day before classes were to start that spring semester, Whited was diagnosed with cancer. Doctors found a tumor on his tongue and another on a lymph node in his neck. The cancer was squamous cell carcinoma, caused by the HPV virus.

Whited took a hiatus from classes to undergo treatment—surgery, radiation therapy, and two months of weekly chemotherapy injections.

“They thought they got everything,” he said.

Portrait of Paul Whited, an account major from the Haslam College of Business, for a December 2018 Commencement story. Whited has twice had to take time off due to initial diagnosis, and then re-occurrence of cancer. He will begin his third round of chemo therapy on graduation day. Photo by Steven Bridges
Portrait of Paul Whited.

Whited returned to UT for the 2016–17 academic year.

But in the fall of 2017, a nagging backache prompted doctors to run more tests. The cancer had spread into his bones and lungs.

Whited dropped out for the entire 2017–18 academic year. For nearly five months, he spent five days every three weeks in the hospital receiving continuous chemotherapy.

This fall, he returned to UT while taking weekly immunotherapy injections.

“Doctors chose that treatment because it was shown to be effective and it would allow me to still exercise, go to school, and do things,” he said.

A few weeks ago, doctors told Whited the immunotherapy had not worked. Not long after that they found skin cancer on his leg.

Rising to the occasion

After doing genetic testing, doctors have devised a new chemotherapy regimen they hope will finally do the trick.

“They wanted me to start that chemotherapy immediately, to stop school again,” he said. “I told them I just wanted to finish school and then focus on the treatment.

“I’m one of those seven-year seniors. Just getting the degree is what matters to me. I’m just happy to be able to finish the degree.”

Whited said he’s found unwavering support from his parents and friends and from faculty members like Hollander, Distinguished Lecturer and assistant head of the Department of Accounting and Information Management.

“If I need someone to talk to, or if I need to see what my options are, she’s been there,” he said.

Hollander said she’s enjoyed having Whited in class.

“I think most faculty members are grateful for a profession that enables us to spend time with special young people who we might not have otherwise met,” she said. “I consider it a blessing that I happened to teach one of Paul’s classes. He has demonstrated a strength of character and determination that are an inspiration to me and to his classmates.”

Whited said he’s managed to make it through classes by segmenting things in his mind.

“When I’m at school, I focus on school. When I’m at the doctor’s office, I focus on my medical issue,” he said. “Getting negative about things doesn’t really help anyone. Being positive about everything and thinking about it as logically as you can is really the best way.

“If you’d told me years ago this would happen, I would have told you there was no way I could get through it,” he said. “But you just kind of rise to the occasion.

“I think I’ve stayed pretty positive and upbeat. Yet sometimes at night it can be hard to go to sleep.

“But I’m young, I’m healthy, and I exercise. I’ve got myself in the best position I can. If anyone can make it through this, I can.”

Whited will focus solely on his health this spring. By summer he hopes to be well enough to pursue an internship, a full-time job, or graduate school.

CONTACT:

Amy Blakely (885-974-5034, ablakely@utk.edu)