Jim Gainey always intended to get that last credit he needed to earn his degree in psychology from Edgewood College. But he never thought he’d get it this way.
Gainey, who was diagnosed last March with Stage IV colon cancer, was presented with his degree Saturday between games of a basketball doubleheader at Edgewood. The event was part of the campus’ UniteToFight campaign to fight cancer and support the American Cancer Society.
Gainey, 32, was all set to graduate in 2003, but a series of events left him one credit short as he didn’t finish off a human issues course.
But after Gainey and his wife, Catherine, also an Edgewood graduate, shared their story in a video as part of the UniteToFight project, Edgewood officials figured he had fulfilled the requirements with room to spare.
“The human issues project really is about dealing with some real life human issue from a variety of perspectives,” said John Leonard, a professor of religious studies. “We said, ‘You’ve done that now. Life has done it with you.’
“There’s no reason why we couldn’t take that life experience, turn it into a short paper and that video, and that turns out to be the equivalent of one credit or more.”
With that taken care of, a graduation ceremony was hastily arranged and Gainey received his diploma alongside his wife, their two sons, Shamus, 4, and Finnegan 11/2, Edgewood president Dan Carey and Leonard.
“It’s been a stunning day,” Gainey said.
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While the diploma was his reward, fulfilling a promise he made to his mother, his story was a gift to Edgewood. The message from the Gaineys: listen to your body, learn your family history and live each day to the fullest.
“The major thing I would like everyone to take away is that it can happen to anybody,” Gainey said. “You don’t have to decide that it’s a death sentence. You don’t have to let this define you.”
Gainey knew there was a strong history of colon cancer on his father’s side of the family, but doctors said he didn’t need a colonoscopy until he turned 40.
The cancer was discovered when he went in for an exam after feeling some pain in his back and side. By then it had already spread to his liver and lungs. He had surgery to remove the tumor and some lymph nodes, but his liver remains a major problem, he said.
“When Jim was diagnosed, we had a choice,” Catherine Gainey said. “We could live in a cave and be depressed or we could get out there and live each day as much as we could.”
Gainey, who continues to work as chief engineer for two hotels in Middleton, isn’t ready to concede anything to the disease.
“When you’re going through hell, you don’t stop,” he said. “Stubborn is a family trait we’re proud of. I have a lot of motivation … two beautiful sons and a beautiful wife.”
And now he also has a college degree.
“Who knows, I’ve never ruled out the idea of going to grad school and getting back into psychology,” he said. “Who knows what the future holds? I didn’t think I’d be here today.”