Megan Howe, cancer survivor, runs Hope Express to give back
Take one look at Cumberland Valley junior runner Megan Howe. She's competing in cross country and track, going to sleepovers at her friends' houses and trying on prom dresses. She's living a perfectly normal life.
But for Howe, diagnosed with Leukemia at age 2 and now 14 years in remission, just having a life to live is a gift. She says she owes everything to THON and the Four Diamonds Fund, in place to conquer pediatric cancer. A student-run, dance-marathon philanthropy at Penn State, THON has raised more than $101 million for the Four Diamonds Fund since its inception in 1977.
The Four Diamonds Fund ensures all medical expenses are covered for the cancer patients at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital.
It's a place where Howe spent much of her early childhood.
Now, at 16 years old, Howe will be returning to the 7th floor of the hospital that once saved her life, this time to pick up a mailbag. The bag, filled with letters of gratitude from the Four Diamonds children and their families, will be delivered to the THON participants at Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center. But the delivery of that bag won't be by vehicle. Rather, by foot.
Howe, and a host of other runners passionate about ending cancer, will carry the bag to State College on a 135-mile relay run. The run will begin early Thursday evening and will likely run late into Friday afternoon.
The run is called Hope Express.
Since its first run in 2007, which raised around $2,500 with a small group of runners, the Hope Express has grown exponentially. Last year's run alone generated more than $93,000. This year, Hope Express founder Hank Angus had to whittle down a list of 84 applicants to come up with rosters for three teams.
Among the selections were Howe and Penn State graduate Krista Petrulsky, who will become the first Four Diamonds children to serve as relay runners for the Hope Express. Running on seperate teams, Howe and Petrulsky will each be taking the opening leg from Hershey Medical Center.
"It's a huge deal. We've had Four Diamonds children run before, but only for one leg of the journey," said Angus, whose son Gabe also battled Leukemia. "This is the first time we will have survivors going the entire route with us. Megan and Krista are such an inspiration. It's why we do what we do, for those kids, kids who literally fought for their lives and won. "It's amazing to me they want to come back and give back.
Competition photos by Ginny Boynton Photography
Between daily pills and visits to the children's hospital three times a week for chemotherapy treatment, life certainly had its challenges for the Howe family in the late 90s. It's not easy to be told your child has cancer. Every family handles the news differently.
But Joseph and Cetta Howe handled it with optimism. Joseph uses a peculiar word to describe his family situation at the time. "This may sound strange, but shortly into it, we felt fortunate," Joseph said. "We still had our daughter. She was getting treatment and there was a good outcome for her." Megan's cancer required two years and two months of chemotherapy. The beginning of the process is the most important. Patients that respond well to the medicine up front have a better chance of survival.
"After the first two to four months, we knew she wasn't going to need a bone marrow transplant," Joseph said. "She was responding the way you'd expect from the chemo to get her into complete remission." He said the first three to four days were especially hard on the family and through the whole process, simple things like spiking a fever meant spending a week in the hospital. It wasn't easy, but the Howe parents had each other for support and more importantly, a cooperative and optimistic daughter in Megan.
"I don't think we could've asked for a better patient than Megan," Joseph said. "She rarely had trouble with her medicine and sure, there were times where she got tired of it and cranky, but 12 years later, we remember how smooth all of it went." A treatment plan like Megan's, as effective as it may be, still has the potential to put a family in serious financial trouble. But at Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital, unlike any other place in the country, Megan's treatment was covered by the Four Diamonds Fund.
"As parents, you hear stories about these other hospitals, news reports about parents trying to raise money just to pay prescriptions," Joseph said. "We never had that worry. We had insurance, but we didn't have to worry about co-pays. The Four Diamonds Fund took care of it. We had seen and heard about the dance marathon on the news before, but never put it all together until we became one of the Four Diamonds families."
By age 4, Megan had won her first battle. She was free of cancer. Her family was thankful and relieved.
"When you first get the diagnosis, there's no guarantee of a good outcome," Joseph said. "It's very scary as a parent to have a child face a life-or-death situation so young. To this day, you see stories from friends and the news and it's very, very difficult to hear."
Howe has always been a big supporter of THON and is a regular attendee to the event. But she had not heard of the Hope Express until a few years ago. Immediately, it was something Howe had to be a part of.
"It's running. I am a THON child. I thought it would be good to apply for a spot," Howe said. "When I got it, I was so excited." She announced her intentions to run in the Hope Express to her cross country teammates this fall. Many had no idea that Howe even battled cancer. But the support she's received from her team, schoolmates and teachers has been overwhelming.
"I think it's awesome what Megan is doing with THON and the Hope Express," Cumberland Valley teammate Laura Barnes said. "I never had to deal with this as a kid, but these kids are fighting for their lives. I complain about school while they're going through chemotherapy. It's courageous for them to have smiles on their faces and keep fighting. They are such strong kids."
But being a cancer survivor alone wasn't going to guarantee Howe a spot on the Hope Express team. She still had to prove herself to Angus and the selection committee.
Applicants for the race are picked based on their relationship with THON, their fundraising efforts, running abilities and an interview. Howe felt good about her chances with everything except for the interview.
"They weren't normal interview questions. It was more personality questions, like who are you, what are you into, what do you believe?" Howe said. "They are trying to get a gist of who you are as a person and how much you really care about certain things. After my interview, I thought, maybe I'm not what they're looking for, but then I thought let's just wait and see."
There was no doubt in Angus' mind that Howe and Petrulsky would be selected. This moment, Angus said, is one that he's been anticipating for a long time. After the early races where it was hard just to find one Four Diamonds family, Angus now has a group that includes two survivors, Howe and Petrulsky, and 10 other runners from Four Diamonds families.
"I knew sooner or later, we'd eventually get a survivor who would want to run the whole way," Angus said. "This speaks volumes about the relationship between THON and the Four Diamonds family. It's an affirmation that OK, maybe we're doing something right."
Support for Howe is quickly growing. Her parents will be at the starting line to watch her run the opening leg of the race. Barnes will be there waiting at the end of the race. Cumberland Valley students are going out of their way to let Howe know how much they care. Barnes says students are writing letters for Howe to read while on the race, teammates are making a big poster and signing it and a photo album of previous THONs is being put together.
From beginning to end, Howe will have the full support of her parents, school, teammates and community. It's something that makes her feel blessed. Now she is ready to do her part."
Everyone I talk to has told me it's amazing how I'm doing this and raising so much money for THON," Howe said. "THON means the world to me, really. They saved my life and paid for my treatment and have been here through everything for my entire family. "Now that I'm older and can give back, I'm happy that I can help other families that need it now."
Make no mistake about it, there is nothing easy about this race, especially if the weather chooses not to cooperate. These runners will be pushing themselves in difficult conditions while operating on little-to-no sleep for nearly 24 hours.
Angus said he's had marathon runners tell him the Hope Express is the most physically-demanding race they've ever had to run. Angus has seen participants dry-heave from the run and get covered in slush from cars passing by.
But no matter how hard the race, the message from those running it is almost always the same. "I can't tell you how many times these runners have just said some really amazing things," Angus said. "They'll run three miles up a hill, about to throw up, and say, 'This is nothing compared to those kids fighting cancer.' I can go on and on. I can tell you stories that will make your hair stand up on end.
"These are real stories and real inspirations. It's not anything my wife and I plan for the event. These are really inspirational things that just happen along the way." Every runner on the Express Teams will be running 10 miles apiece. Howe will be taking the first four miles of the race, picking up two more miles around 2:30 a.m. and then running three miles later for her third leg.
Once the race reaches its final mile, everyone will run together.
Kylee Ammerman is another runner in the race and has grown close to Howe in their short time knowing one another. They will be teammates on Thursday. Ammerman is one of the few runners in the race whose family hasn't directly been touched by cancer, but the cause is still close to her heart.
"Hank always asks us, 'Are you worthy?'" Ammerman said. "Honestly, I'm struggling to find a way to answer that. Yes, I'm worthy because I'm putting my whole heart into it, but I'm just putting one foot in front of the other climbing mountains. I'm not climbing the same mountains as these kids.
"Who's to say whether I'm worthy or not. I'm going to give it all I've got, that's for sure. I can't fully grasp what will happen Thursday, but I think it will be one of the most emotional roller-coaster rides I've ever been on."
The time to talk is just about over. The running will begin Thursday evening.
If all goes according to plan, the Hope Express could end up raising six-figure money.
But to Angus, the money doesn't matter.
"It's not important. It's never been important to me, I could care less about it," Angus said. "We only fundraise to find a cure. We have to do it." Angus said he just wants his runners to have fun. He says if the event can provide some sort of emotional relief for anybody involved, than he's done his job.
According to Angus, it's more important for the Hope Express to raise awareness, not money.
"The one thing that really keeps me up at night is there could be a family out there that doesn't know about the Four Diamonds Fund," Angus said. "And the family doesn't take the child to the hospital because they don't know it's there and the child passes away.
"Spreading awareness is very important to us."
All eyes will shift to Howe and Petrulsky.
Howe said she doesn't feel any pressure for the race, easily the most significant run of her career. "I've been thinking about the race a little bit every day. I've been training and raising money for so long, I'm just looking forward to the start of the race," Howe said. "It's exciting to be the one to start the whole thing. I guess I do feel a bit nervous for the running because I'll be going up mountains, but nobody has been putting pressure on me, other than to just keep training.
"This is going to be a huge moment for me. I've come so far and this will be really exciting. It's going to fly by so fast and I won't want it to end."
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