Dancing for life: Then and now
Architectural engineering's John Messner shares family's full circle THON journey
UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — As a dancer at the 15th annual IFC Dance Marathon held in 1988, John Messner, professor of architectural engineering, never thought his involvement with the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon — THON — would be more than that of a student volunteer or an alumnus volunteer and donor.
Messner and his future wife Anne danced as representatives of his fraternity, Phi Kappa Tau, and helped raise $324,000 for the “A Thousand Feet Will Dance” THON, fulfilling their desire to help children with pediatric cancer.
He describes the experience of dancing for a cure as enjoyable, yet exhausting and challenging. But, what he didn’t realize is that 26 years later, he would experience an even more challenging pediatric cancer situation — his son Isaac’s Stage 1 A Hodgkin’s lymphoma diagnosis.
On April 1, 2014, Isaac returned home from a track meet around midnight. When he woke up the next morning, he said he didn’t feel well and was experiencing some chest pain. Messner said he and his wife thought their son might be dehydrated and tired from his track meet the previous day, so they told him to make sure he drank enough water during the school day. Later in the day, Messner received a call from his wife — she and Isaac were at the hospital and Isaac was being sent to Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.
Messner said Isaac went to the school nurse saying something still didn’t feel right in his chest. A visit to Mount Nittany Medical Center to run multiple tests, including a CAT scan, indicated a mass in Isaac’s chest.
“At that point, we didn’t know what was going on. We weren’t told anything specific other than Isaac needed to go to Hershey,” Messner said. So, he and Isaac headed to Penn State’s medical center while Anne returned home to gather overnight bags.
When they arrived in Hershey, Isaac was pre-admitted to the oncology unit.
“That was our first indication that something serious was wrong,” Messner said. “But we went through a number of days of tests, biopsies and scans before we received an official diagnosis because the doctors wanted to receive some of the test results back before diagnosing.”
Once the diagnosis was given, Messner said they learned that in theory, Stage 1 A Hodgkin’s lymphoma is one of the most treatable childhood cancers.
“So in a sense,” he said, “the diagnosis was positive.”
Because there were no immediate health concerns, Isaac was discharged from the hospital after his diagnosis. He even attended a pre-scheduled Boy Scout campout.
“I think that was one of the times he showed us how he would handle his diagnosis,” Messner said.
Soon, Isaac’s treatment began — scanning, surgery and two rounds of chemotherapy. Each treatment lasted three days and each treatment cycle lasted three to four weeks. A scan to see if the two rounds had been successful showed the mass still remained. After a fourth treatment cycle, it was determined the chemotherapy wasn’t working. Doctors altered Isaac’s chemotherapy regiment to a more aggressive regiment, causing him to be hospitalized for three days during each treatment.
To be discharged, Isaac had to drink eight ounces of fluids after a treatment. Messner said Isaac’s determination and perseverance made him work hard to get out of the hospital as soon as he was able to, forcing himself to keep those eight ounces of fluids down.
This round of treatment proved to be much more successful than the first. Doctors believed Isaac’s scan to be clean but were a little wary because of residual highlighted areas from the previous surgery.
Isaac then received 14 radiation treatments — all in Hershey — while he was still attending high school each day. Messner said for 15 days straight they would leave State College by 5 a.m., Isaac would be on the radiation table by 7 a.m. for the earliest treatment the hospital offered, and then they would return home for Isaac to go to school. Isaac finished radiation right before Christmas 2014.
“They thought after all of that, they had gotten it,” Messner said.
The second shock
After attending their first THON as a Four Diamonds Fund family, Isaac went in for a three-month post radiation check-up scan.
The scan showed the mass in his chest was returning.
“Things got a bit more serious,” Messner said. “Isaac went through a couple different rounds of tests because doctors wanted to be 100 percent sure it was a reoccurrence of the same thing. They determined they needed to do another surgery to run another biopsy.”
Because of the location of Isaac’s mass, it was challenging to simply remove the tumor. It wasn’t like his mother’s Hodgkin’s.
“My wife had Hodgkin’s when she was younger, so we have a history with this stuff,” Messner said. “Anne’s showed up in the neck, which is a pretty common area, but it can show up in lymph node clusters in your chest like Isaac’s. That is a bit more challenging because you can’t get to it easily. They usually don’t do surgery to remove it — they only do surgery to biopsy it. They try to take care of it in place.”
But during this biopsy, the surgeons were able to remove the tumor — and Isaac’s thymus, an organ that produces T cells for the immune system that can often mess with scans.
Isaac started chemotherapy medication temporarily before doctors decided a bone marrow transplant was necessary.
After quite a bit of a challenge collecting some of Isaac’s own stem cells from him, doctors were able to gather enough cells to do an autologous transplant, a transplant where a patient’s own stem cells are collected and then the patient is treated with high doses of chemotherapy or a combination of chemotherapy and radiation. The chemotherapy kills the cancer cells but also kills the stem cells that are in the bone marrow. The collected stem cells are then implanted back into the patient, where they rebuild bone marrow, which then rebuilds white blood cells.
“We picked Isaac up from his last high school class of his junior year, his last high school final and drove to Hershey where he went through the stem cell transplant,” Messner said.
Isaac was hospitalized for about 20 days after the transplant while his immune system was being rebuilt. He stayed in a controlled room that only allowed immediate family visitors.
Throughout Isaac’s entire treatment, he ran or biked. As a member of State College Area High School’s cross-country and track teams, Isaac took his conditioning seriously. In 2015, Isaac received the Kevin Dare Heart of the Lion award, presented at the Kevin Dare High School Invitational. The award is in honor of Kevin Dare, a State High and Penn State pole vaulter who was killed in a pole vaulting accident at the 2002 Big Ten Championships. The award honors athletes who display courage, sportsmanship and leadership in track and field.
While Isaac was hospitalized for his stem cell treatment, he remembered seeing Lance Armstrong using an in-room bike during his treatment, therefore Isaac requested the same. For every 75 miles he rode, Penn State Hershey’s music therapists would write and perform a song for Isaac. During the course of his stem cell treatment, close to 20 days, Isaac biked almost 500 miles.
“He kept them busy for a while,” Messner laughed. “They started to say ‘hey we are going to have to increase the miles because we can’t keep up.'”
Isaac also went on to receive his Eagle Scout rank — something only 4 percent of Boy Scouts are granted — after a lengthy review process, during his cancer treatment. He completed his project, planting beds at Housing Transitions, Inc., though a portion of the project needed to be delayed for a year due to treatments.
Four Diamonds Fund and THON
Because of the Messner family’s history with THON, they understood that the Four Diamonds Fund would provide financial support for Isaac’s medical bills. What they didn’t have a full understanding of though was the emotional support the Four Diamonds Fund and THON would provide to them.
Messner said he believes the work the Four Diamonds Fund employees did during what may have been one of his family’s darkest times was equally, if not more, beneficial than the medical bill coverage.
“It was very soon after Isaac was admitted that our Four Diamonds Fund social worker, Greg, showed up in the room to talk to us about the foundation. He let us know that the foundation would support us throughout the process. He told us about the additional things THON supports — most known is medical bill assistance — but he shared information on the musical therapists and the events that go on and are available to families and patients. We learned so much from Greg. There is a very good communication network once you become a Four Diamonds family,” he said.
When Isaac was first diagnosed, Messner said the family was getting hit from every direction with different things — diagnosis information, treatment and expensive medical bills. Though insurance eventually covered almost all of Isaac’s care, it was necessary to sort out bills as they came. As the bills kept coming, Messner said Greg immediately stepped up and took care of communication with the insurance company.
“We would just take him our mail and he took care of it,” Messner said. “It’s those little kinds of things that Four Diamonds helps with that make such a difference for families.”
And then there was THON and the more than 15,000 student volunteers that spend each year fundraising and dancing their way to a cure for pediatric cancer. Once the Messners became a Four Diamonds family, they were paired with Phi Kappa Tau, Messner’s fraternity and the organization that he danced for in 1988.
“Being a Four Diamonds family and having an organization of students behind us, that was incredibly helpful,” Messner said.
Being local, the family would meet up from time to time with members of Phi Kappa Tau, and their partner organization, Phi Mu. Students checked in with Isaac throughout his treatment and to this day, he remains close with some of the students.
Messner said it was this relationship that showed him that though he was a THON alumnus and knew that the philanthropy financially helped pediatric cancer patients and their families, he didn’t fully understand the depth of this help.
“We have a deep appreciation for what all the students who are involved with THON do. It has helped our family tremendously — it helped Isaac tremendously, both from being able to connect with students and being able to feel welcome at THON, to having an additional support group that he or our family would not have had if it was not for THON. We truly appreciate the support that we as a Four Diamonds family received with medical expenses, but our appreciation goes so much deeper than that.”
The THON activities held throughout the year, culminating with THON Weekend, provided the family, especially Isaac and his younger brothers Joe and Jacob, with an outlet to experience the joy and encouragement student volunteers work to provide for Four Diamonds families. Though the Messner children have always known about THON, they experienced its exhilarating emotions firsthand in 2015 and 2016.
“Unfortunately, this was not their only experience with cancer, since my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer when they were young. They watched those treatments; they’ve seen their fair share of someone going through chemo, so it was very helpful for them to be able to have fun,” Messner said.
Positive prognosis and new journeys
Since his stem cell treatment, Isaac’s scans have remained cleaned. He finished his immunotherapy chemo treatment in spring 2016 and now returns to Hershey every few months for follow-up scans and check-ups. Messner said, if it will return, Hodgkin’s has the tendency to return in a short time period. So for now, Isaac will continue to be monitored. He is off all medications, is a first-year biology student in the Eberly College of Science at Penn State and is a member of THON’s OPPerations Committee. He also continues to run and raise THON funds with Penn State Club Cross Country.
“The time that he spent at Hershey has really influenced what he wants to do and where he wants to go in life,” Messner said. “He’s always had some affinity towards science, but I think after he was treated and was around the families and the other kids that are down in Hershey, he has a deep interest in helping out children with cancer.”
Messner said Isaac has even discussed a career as a pediatric doctor, all because of his experience at Hershey.
“We don’t know where that will take him, but he is certain in the first steps of that journey,” he said.