When 4-year-old Connor Rowan grows up, he’s going to be a superhero.
At least, that’s what he told his mother, Marianne, as he was in the hospital one night, getting treated for hepatoblastoma, a rare form of liver cancer most common among children.
Marianne, pausing before telling this story, said the memory is “the one thing that still totally gets to [her].”
She said it all happened so fast, but she specifically remembers one night at the Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Connor was in his pajamas, and the next day, he was going to have surgery, so they were trying to relax and prepare for the long hours ahead.
“We were sitting there, just him and I,” she said, her voice steady and even. “He looked at me, and in this little voice he said: ‘When I grow up, I’m gonna be Spiderman.’ ”
This is Connor Rowan, a 4-year-old from York, Pennsylvania. He loves to jump on his trampoline. Spiderman, Batman and Wolverine are among his biggest obsessions. He likes to block his big brothers’ paths as they walk by, asking them for a password.
Their response is always the same: “Courageous Connor 21.”
“I don’t know where the 21 came from,” Marianne said, laughing.
The “courageous” part, however, speaks for itself.
Brittany Robbins, a member of the Family Relations committee, said everyone in Family Relations calls Connor by this nickname.
“He is the biggest bundle of joy I think any of us have had the pleasure of crossing paths with,” Robbins (junior-communication sciences and disorders) said. “He’s the most courageous of them all.”
His diagnosis came in December 2014 after a tumor ruptured, Marianne said.
“We didn't have a chance to process anything. It was basically like, ‘He’s got cancer. He’s having surgery,’ ” Marianne said. “So everything happened very fast for us.”
The Rowan family — Marianne, her husband Michael and three children — spent the next year in “go mode,” Marianne said. Connor underwent treatments, and in order to remind him of his strength, a family friend made a quilt for him that they hung on the hospital wall.
“It had all these superheroes on it,” Marianne said. “And she embroidered ‘When I grow up, I’m going to be Spiderman’ on the bottom.”
Now, after about a year of treatment, Connor is cancer-free. He’s been in remission for the past nine months.
In a few days, the Rowan family will experience their first Penn State Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
“We look at this as our learning year,” Marianne said.
Her plan is to let Connor set the tone on what he can handle, and the family will go with the flow from there.
The Rowans were paired with the Clown Nose Club, a student organization dedicated to encouraging its members to take positive social risks, through THON’s “Adopt-a-Family” program.
Robbins, who is also an “Adopt-a-Family” general and special interest organization liaison for the Family Relations Committee, explained that this program, which has been in place for more than 20 years, involves a student organization filling out an application to either support its first Four Diamonds family or maintain the pairing it already has.
The selection process is competitive, and Robbins said it depends on what each organization is willing to contribute to the program.
“It really is an honor and a privilege that we’re giving to these organizations,” Robbins said. “[These families] deserve the entire world, especially with what they're going through right now.”
For the Rowan family, their organization’s support doesn’t go unnoticed.
Marianne said members of the group have come to visit them in York and spent the day playing outside with the family. They also send Connor gifts and make sure to include his two older brothers, AJ, 11, and Alex, 7, all of whom want to go to Penn State.
“They’re awesome,” Marianne said. “We feel like we’re getting to know them really well. It’s a nice, personal connection. Everything has just been positive for the kids, for us. It’s just been very welcoming and kind of makes them forget about the cancer part of it and think about the fun part of it.”
In the days leading up to THON, the Clown Nose Club has also sent the Rowans a daily video countdown.
Marianne said she’s excited to experience it firsthand after hearing so much about it.
“I’m sure I’ll cry half the time,” she said, laughing. “I don’t have the right words, but I wish I could express to all of you what you mean to us…I’m just a normal person and never really thought about cancer.”
She said she’d heard of THON before Connor was diagnosed, but never fully grasped what it was.
“I’d see some of the canners, and sometimes I’d stop and give them some money, but I just didn’t think about it the way I do now,” she said.
In the future, the Rowans plan to continue participating in THON.
“I don’t think my children would let me have a second choice anyway,” she said.
Marianne used to drive by Penn State on the way to visit her mom, but she never stopped.
“Now it’s just become part of our family,” she said. “They’ve given us a lot of fun times and it just makes something positive come out of something so hard.”