Dan Elder’s hip hurt, a lot, but ibuprofen took care of it. He was working out, trying to build muscle, but he kept losing weight.

But he was busy in the fall of 2013. The undergrad was working on finishing up his nutrition and wellness degree at UNCG and completing a minor in theatre. He had his eyes set on graduate school.

When he met with theatre instructor Josh Foldy to ask for a letter of recommendation for grad school, though, the first thing the instructor asked was, “Are you alright?” Elder had lost so much weight that he was visibly thinner. Foldy agreed to write the letter, but he also wanted him to see a doctor.

So Elder went to the UNCG Student Health Center and got an x-ray of his hip. Two hours later he got a phone call: The radiologist had seen something and wanted him to get an MRI.

“I’m still like ‘This is no big deal,’” Elder says. “I get an MRI. Three days later I come back to cancer.”

The MRI identified an invasive, left pelvic tumor. A lymph node biopsy and a PET scan followed. The PET scan “basically looked like a starry night sky” — every bright spot a cluster of cancer cells.

Twenty-six-year-old Elder had Stage 4b Hodgkins lymphoma. Cancer had spread to his bones, lymph nodes, spleen and lungs. The good news: The disease, even at that advanced stage, is treatable.

He took his medical records and started talking to his professors. His first stop was the office of instructor Cheryl Lovelady, his hardest teacher.

“I said, ‘I just got some news. It’s not very good. I’m a little scared, but I think it’s going to be OK,’” he recalls. She embraced him. “I was like ‘OK, the toughest teacher I know is hugging me. This is serious.'”

Seven-months-of-chemo serious.

“The chemotherapy was brutal,” he says. “It basically feels like you’re drowning in a sea of poison. You’re always sick, you always feel like you’re going to die.”

The oncologist warned him that continuing to go to class while taking chemo would be all but impossible. The cancer drugs cause “chemo brain” and short-term memory becomes unreliable. And there’s the fatigue.

“You just feel tired all the time,” Elder says. “If you sleep for eight hours it feels like three.”

Elder’s father and stepmother live in Philadelphia. His brother lives in Florida. He didn’t have family in North Carolina, but a support network materialized from UNCG. Classmates volunteered to take him to his every-two-weeks chemo sessions. Faculty members, such as nutrition instructors B. Burgin Ross and Laurie Allen, would bring food to his apartment, check in via email and visit him.

“I remember a couple of times when Ms. Ross would come and just sit and talk,” he says.

His last chemo treatment was in March 2014. In the fall, he returned to full-time classes, finishing up courses he had started a year earlier. He’s graduated this month with a degree but also with a new strength and stronger relationships.

“I had such a great relationship with the professors,” he says. “I really genuinely felt like they were there for me.”

This fall, he’ll come back to UNCG to pursue a master’s degree. He hopes to teach health and wellness eventually, perhaps at a community college.