Support in Recovery
When Ryan Nelis, ’20, was diagnosed with cancer, his classes at Booth became his grounding—and his professors and classmates helped get him to graduation.
- April 17, 2023
I was working in Holland, Michigan, while going to Booth on the weekends, driving back and forth every week. I began to show symptoms such as exhaustion—but it was easy to blame everything else. I thought I was working too hard.
I realized something was wrong over the holiday break between the Autumn and Winter Quarters my third and final year, in 2020. I noticed what I thought looked like a knot in my neck that started to get bigger and bigger. During the third week of January, just after classes had restarted, I went to the doctor.
The first visit was casual. They confirmed there was a bump, but told me that there were lots of things it could be, so it wasn’t too alarming. On a Monday, I had the biopsy, and on Friday afternoon, I heard from the doctor.
I was driving when I got the call, so I pulled over to a parking lot, and that’s where I learned that I had thyroid cancer. It’s one of those things where even when you think you might have it, you don’t actually think that it’s real. Everything else kind of pauses. What I remember most is that the doctor said, “I hope you have a good weekend.” I don’t know how you can do that after such news, but I said, “Thank you.” I skipped school that weekend and went to my parents’ house.
About three weeks later, I had surgery to remove my thyroid. The cancer had spread into different lymph nodes, into my neck, and under my collarbone. It was Stage 2. I had to do a radiation treatment as well, but by the time I healed from the surgery, we were in the pandemic, so it was delayed until the following September. I was already staying home and staying away from others to recover when everything was shut down.
“It's one of those things where even when you think you might have it, you don't actually think that it's real.”
It had been top of mind for me when I first got the diagnosis that I find a way not to miss my Booth courses. I emailed my professors shortly after getting the call. They said not to worry about it—in fact, they asked me what I needed from them. They were able to record the sessions that I had to miss.
As I recovered from my surgery, I studied and prepared for my coursework at home. I had a great group of classmates and friends who helped me with the homework. They kept me up to speed on the discussions to help me understand what was happening.
Going to school was my way of relaxing. I really enjoy learning and attending lectures. That was my escape. Everything in my life had been thrown up in the air—grad school was the one constant. When I was recovering, it provided me with a grounding.
Unbelievably, I graduated from Booth on time, thanks to the support from my classmates and professors.
Today, everything is good. I still have my yearly checkups, but everything is clear. I’m a vice president for AlixPartners in their performance improvement department, and I focus on operations consulting. I couldn’t have gotten to this point without my classmates, professors, friends, and family. I hope that if anyone is going through similar issues in the Booth community, they know they can come to me. I am always happy to try to help.