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Dance Marathon graduates stay close

BY EMMA MCCLATCHEY | JANUARY 31, 2014 5:00 AM

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After three and a half years of treatment for acute lymphoblastic leukemia, Darick Witt and mother Shelley Witt were given the news they had been fighting for: Darick was cancer-free.

But rather than rejoice, the 7-year-old Darick surprised his doctor by bursting into tears.

“He said, you mean I don’t ever get to be a part of Dance Marathon again?’ ” Witt said. “For a child to go through treatment and cry when it’s over shows the relationships he made were strong.”

Darick isn’t the only former Dance Marathon “kiddo” who couldn’t bear to say goodbye to the University of Iowa organization. Even after returning to “normal” lives of school, sports, and hospital-free weekends, families of Dance Marathon graduates haven’t forgotten the program that made the transition from hospital stays to high school much easier.

“Every fun event they offered helped me maintain a normal lifestyle for him when we were really struggling,” said Witt, who was a single mom at the time of Darick’s diagnosis.

This sense of normalcy was achieved with everything from Dance Marathon Adventureland trips and Christmas gifts to simple parking vouchers — which saved the Witts from being stuck with a $198 parking bill after Darick’s first hospital stay.

“Every time we go to the hospital, we laugh and reminisce and say if it wasn’t for Dance Marathon, we’d still be sitting in the ramp,” Witt said.

Now a 15-year-old freshman and basketball player at Calamus/Wheatland High, Darick said he uses his positive treatment experience to motivate current Dance Marathon families. Along with his mother, Darick has attended the last 10 “Big Events” and founded mini-Marathons in his community of Wheatland, Iowa.

“I feel the need to go out and do my fair share,” said Darick. “I’m not going to take that all for granted. These kids haven’t lost their battle, and there’s a good chance they won’t lose their battle.”

A mere 2-year-old when she finished treatment for retinoblastoma, 2009 Dance Marathon graduate Sena Graham can’t remember many hospital visits. But the now-12-year-old still lives with the side effects of her rare cancer, including a lack of vision in her right eye — which hasn’t kept the sharp Clear Creek Amana middle schooler from swimming, dancing, and maintaining a long-distance relationship with a fellow retinoblastoma survivor in Scotland.

“I kind of want to be a librarian or a geologist or a journalist, because I like to get up in people’s business — and holding microphones is awesome,” said Sena, who gets particularly motivated after attending Dance Marathon’s Big Event each year. “I look forward to it a lot. At Dance Marathon, nobody asks me why I have weird eyes.”

Mother Lori Graham — who was inspired to become a teacher for the visually impaired after Sena’s experience — said she is glad to have a connection with Dance Marathon on the rare chance her daughter’s cancer should return.

“Some of the [family representatives] have just been a huge part of our lives,” Graham said. “Sena does everything everyone else does. The biggest thing is she can’t go see 3D movies.”

Keokuk High School freshman Connor Muston hasn’t been afraid to spread his horizons, either, especially since his spirit-lifting Dance Marathon graduation in 2011.

“It felt like I was graduating from high school. It was a really great moment,” Connor said. “I say to the other kids, do not stop fighting. Keep this going until there’s nothing left of the cancer.”

Like Darick, Connor fought acute lymphoblastic leukemia for three and a half years before finishing treatment in 2005. Despite developing some learning disabilities as a result of his chemotherapy, Connor has made the varsity cross-country team, is an aspiring Lego designer, and plans to visit Boston in August to cheer on his beloved Red Sox alongside mother Amy Johnson.

“Your life never really goes back to normal; there’s always that fear the cancer will come back,” Johnson said. “But he has no restrictions on what he’s allowed to do. We’re an average family; we just happen to be a cancer family.”

And despite the heartbreak that comes with a cancer diagnosis, Shelley Witt said the relationships formed throughout the treatment process have changed her family for the better.

“Darick was around so many kids with illness and disability it made him such a kind and thoughtful person,” she said. “It’s really shaped who he has become as a teenager. People were so giving to him that he wants to be giving and loving to them.”

Johnson said her son’s endurance — as one of his school’s top runners, and as a cancer survivor —has become an inspiration in their community, and hopefully to current Dance Marathon families as well.

“You can win, you just have to keep your strength together. It’s possible to get there,” she said. “It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon.”

Daily Iowan reporter Emma McClatchey participates in Dance Marathon.


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