Battling Back

KENNESAW, Ga. | Dec 21, 2017

Cancer survivor earns degree from KSU

Alex Caughman was easy to spot at his Dec. 13 graduation ceremony at Kennesaw State University, with a big smile on his face and shoulder-length hair flowing from under his mortarboard.

While Caughman acknowledged that he would get a haircut the following day in order to “look presentable for job interviews,” his long locks had become symbolic of his journey to overcome cancer and earn his marketing degree from the Michael J. Coles College of Business.

“As soon as my hair started growing back after chemotherapy, I said, ‘I’m going to let it go,’” Caughman said. “This is a year of hair growth.”

Alex Caughman

Caughman was about a year away from graduating when, in November 2015, he found what felt like a tumor. A urologist initially told him that it likely was a cyst and nothing to worry about, but Caughman sought a second opinion after the growth tripled in size.

Caughman was diagnosed with testicular cancer, and he underwent successful surgery around the time that spring 2016 semester was starting. Caughman told his professors that he would be back in class following his surgery and recovery, but that changed when he learned the cancer had spread to his lungs and lymph nodes.

“I came back to class for two days, and then I had a follow-up and was told I had stage III cancer,” Caughman said. “The doctor said, ‘If I were you, I would drop all your classes and start chemo.’ So that’s exactly what I did.”

Caughman underwent three grueling cycles of chemotherapy over three months, eight hours a day for five days a week. He returned to Kennesaw State last fall and carried full class loads for the next two semesters before taking one final class this past semester to complete his marketing degree.

“Graduation day meant everything,” Caughman said. “It was the culmination of everything that I’ve worked for.”

Caughman’s next goal is to land a job in digital marketing. He gained valuable experience as a member of the Coles College’s social media competition team, which won Best Strategic Design and took second place out of 40 teams at a national competition hosted by Ball State University earlier this year.

Tyra Burton, senior lecturer of marketing in the Coles College of Business, worked closely with Caughman as the advisor of the social media competition team. She described him as an inspiration.

“Alex embodies the words resilience and determination,” Burton said. “No matter what life throws at him, he faces it head-on and with his unique sense of humor. Throughout his recovery, he dedicated himself to completing his education regardless of the obstacles life threw in his path.”

As he pursues a marketing position, Caughman is continuing one of the jobs he held during college, teaming with his father to build custom decks. Caughman said he has the craft “down to a science” and is interested in having carpentry as a side venture to his career.

In addition, Caughman is an entrepreneur. A self-described “Craigslist warrior,” he finds good deals online to buy 1980s arcade games, then restores and sells them.

Meanwhile, Caughman also is planning a wedding. He proposed to his girlfriend, Sydney Pahl, on June 12, 2016, and their wedding is set for September 2018. Pahl is in her third year as a music teacher at Cherokee Christian School in Woodstock, the school Caughman grew up attending.

“I finished chemo and, the next day, I went out, drained my savings account and bought her a ring,” Caughman said. “She means the world to me.”

And, best of all, Caughman now is cancer-free.

“I had scans done just a couple weeks ago, and they’re clear,” he said. “That whole cancer thing really took the wind out of my sails, but I came back to school and just buckled down. I look forward to what's ahead for me in the future.”


— Paul Floeckher

Photos by Lauren Kress

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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 43,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit