Dance Marathon: Young cancer survivor is Hawkeyes’ No. 1 fan


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Jason O’Neill got just what he wanted for Christmas: a black Labrador puppy and miniature Hawkeye jerseys had topped his and his younger brother’s lists.

As Jason, 7, tackles his brother in imitation of their favorite sports team, the blond-haired, blue-eyed, Hawkeye-loving boy shows no sign he’s a five-year cancer survivor about to “graduate” from Dance Marathon.

But it’s something his mother, Lynn O’Neill, never forgets.

A week before Christmas 2003, her 19-month-old son was diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer. She remembers sitting on the couch, staring at Jason’s name on the stocking hung above the fireplace.

“I was just sobbing and wondering if he was going to be there next Christmas,” O’Neill said. “There’s not one Christmas that goes by that, when I hang up the stocking, I don’t think of that Christmas.”

That year, an innocent-looking bump on the inside of Jason’s elbow turned out to be a tumor. But then answers stopped coming.

“I kept wanting them to tell me, ‘It was benign, it was benign,’ but no one would say the words to me,” O’Neill said, and she called doctors at least twice a week. “Finally, they called me and told me it was cancer.”

The bump on Jason’s right elbow was a rhabdoid tumor, a swift cancer that only affects between five and 10 American children each year. He began chemo immediately.

During treatment, O’Neill spent up to 23 days a month in the hospital. Struggling with one income and limited time to spend with her newborn baby, Josh, she took “each day one day at a time.”

As father John O’Neill described that low point in their lives, Jason spoke up from the couch.

“It was hard for my mom at that time,” he said, his normally smiling face briefly somber.

But with the support of Dance Marathon, the family were able to get through the “toughest times,” Lynn O’Neill said. When they arrived for the first day of treatment in December 2003, Dance Marathon members handed them a “comfort kit.”

“You feel this world is crashing down on you and then Dance Marathon gives this bag of things to you,” Lynn O’Neill said, recalling the parking and food vouchers. “They probably don’t even realize what that means.”

Remembering being trapped with medical bills and constant worry, John O’Neill lauded the student volunteers’ “amazing” commitment.

“It’s just really, really neat that they take those kids like they’re their own,” he said. The O’Neills still have the Bob the Builder banner one volunteer made for Jason’s “end of chemo party.”

July 2009 marked five cancer-free years for Jason. He now goes for a checkup once a year and is officially in remission. And though his right arm is slightly smaller than the other because of the radiation, Jason is a normal, carefree kid, John O’Neill said.

Perched on the edge of his bed, wearing his new jersey, Jason proudly pointed out the extensive Hawkeye memorabilia that dominate his décor. He was most eager to show off the decoration above his bed — a Hawkeye white board with the words “Go Iowa” in his scrawling handwriting. With the push of a button, the “Hawkeye Fight Song” blares.

“Fight fight fight for Iowa,” Jason sang along by heart, dancing on his bed.

Watching her sons play football with the Scotch tape field goal she made on the wall, Lynn O’Neill smiles. She said she looks forward to seeing Jason walk across the stage in a mini cap and gown at the “graduation” ceremony this weekend with other kids five years free of cancer.

“No matter what, seeing my son up there for me is the best feeling in the world,” she said. “But I’m hoping for other families newly diagnosed seeing my son up there — that it’s hope.”

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