Former THON Child Joe Martin Returns To THON 25 Years Later, Cancer-Free
Sitting up in press row, the bird’s-eye view of THON is nothing short of a spectacle. The fluorescent colors and the dancing bodies moving all over the huge basketball arena encourages people-watching. From the great dance moves to outrageous outfits, it’s easy to pick out the outliers of the group, but every once in a while my eye will catch a diamond in the rough. There are smiling young THON children having squirt gun fights with dancers and there are proud parents tearing up, but this time, my eyes caught a man with an orange shirt twirling three sticks. It wasn’t something necessarily too out of the ordinary, but it was all in his demeanor. He had a grin that went from ear to ear, and he seemed to be passing his sticks on to other THONners on the floor. He just seemed happy to be here. Just seemed excited about life.
“This picture was taken on Easter. This picture was taken on Columbus Day — the day when I was diagnosed. This was a picture of me taken on Christmas, all taken on the same year. You can see the effect of cancer just in those few months,” Joe Martin said as he pulled out articles of his diagnosis in the local Lancaster, PA newspaper, followed by photos of his youth. He was eight years old.
“They found a brain tumor that covered the back side of my head. When they found the brain tumor, they gave me 24 hours to live.” I listened intently as Joe opened up his scrapbook to a slot filled with pictures. Pictures of two boys with brown eyes, small heads, and small tufts of brown hair on their heads with his father holding both of them.
“They put me immediately on chemo therapy and radiation. They rushed me to go to get a bone marrow transplant.” He picked up his picture that was slipped in the first part of the scrapbook page and pointed to the smaller of the two boys. “This is my brother. He was going to be my bone marrow transplant.”
Upon reaching Cincinnati, it was revealed that he had grown two tumors in his lower abdomen after complaints about pain in that area. After further tests and diagnoses, he was given 72 hours to live.
“That left me with no transplant, and so I was rushed back to Hershey Medical Center where I was diagnosed with a rare T-cell lymphoma. With some radiation and chemo, things actually started to look good.” He flipped to the next page in scrapbook.
“With scheduling my last chemo treatment, two weeks later I relapsed. The doctors were rushing to find the cancer in me. When they finally found spots in my chest, it was then found that I had developed tuberculosis.”
At this point, it seemed like there really was no hope. No hospitals had accepted, or were accepting him for that matter. Joe could’ve been another tragic pediatric cancer statistic.
“Day one after that was radiation. Day two was chemo therapy. Day three was a blood transfusion to keep me alive. Day four again was radiation. This cycle went on for 28 days, and through those marrow transplants, I’ve been 25 years cancer-free. And I’m 25 years cancer-free because of the ones that danced at THON.”
He then illustrated the lives of his friends in the same situation — they weren’t as lucky. They perished, and after all the circumstances, Joe was the one that held on and survived.
“Because of Penn State supporting the Four Diamonds Fund, just like the dancers and all the committees and everyone involved, they are saving the lives of children now and are helping them be cancer free for 25 years. Thank you Penn State, thank you for continuing to help like you’ve continued to help me,” he said.
“I came back to the BJC a couple of years ago because I really needed to see what it was like,” he added. “You know, how much has changed. I came back to the Bryce Jordan Center and I cried because of how big it’s gotten. And it’s amazing, and in the same token, it was a reminder of everything that I had lived through. It was a helpful memory of all my friends that died fighting this disease as I saw these little kids running around with their heads bald. But I can’t thank you all enough for what you are doing for these children.”
As we wrapped up the interview, Joe told me about the three sticks he held in his hand. I asked him what he did with them and he took me to the floor. As we waited for my press pass, he handed me his.
“It’s ok he can take mine. He’s family.”
Walking onto the floor, Joe started to twirl the three sticks in his hands. Looking around for friends to be with and show his talent. Looking for friends to rejoice with and family to be among. He twirled the three sticks with THON children passing and asked a PR captain to partake in the fun. Joe had that familiar look in his eye. It was a strong connection between him, me, dancers, and everyone else in the building. Not that we are related in any way, but we are connected through THON — the organization that brought us together.