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San Clemente swimmer Weston Rowan challenges cancer face-to-face
It started with numbness, then piercing pain.
No problem, thought San Clemente’s Weston Rowan, a nationally ranked swimmer in backstroke and individual medley. If Michael Jordan could fight through illness to help the Chicago Bulls win an NBA championship, surely he could overcome pain and compete in the biggest event of his career.
After competing with two of USC’s best swimmers at the Kevin Perry meet held at Golden West College in November, Rowan qualified for nationals in Austin, Tex.
But not long before nationals, which were held Dec. 10-13, Rowan began experiencing numbness in his chin. Soon, it became pain in his jaw. Rowan and his family thought nothing of it, thinking a trip to the dentist would be in order when the 15-year-old returned from Texas.
Then the headaches started.
At Nationals, Rowan began warming up for the 200-meter individual medley. As he swam, a coach mentioned it looked as if he had lost weight. That was the first time Jackie Rowan, Weston’s mother, had started to worry about the health of her son.
Rowan participated in the 200-meter individual medley, but came out winded and tired. He and his parents canceled his remaining events and took the first flight back to Southern California.
After all, Rowan had always been hardworking, surely he’d have another shot.
The Rowans made a straight line for Mission Hospital upon their return to Orange County. It would be more than a week and several visits later before the family found the real reason behind Weston’s symptoms.
Visits to his dentist and orthodontist led to opinions that what Rowan was experiencing was not dental related. His pediatrician wasn’t sure either.
After some blood tests, the family was recommended to Children’s Hospital of Orange County. On Christmas Eve, the Rowans finally had an answer.
Weston Rowan had Burkitt’s lymphoma, a rare form of leukemia that appears most commonly among people 40 years or older. It was classified as Stage 4, meaning it had reached his central nervous system. Weston Rowan would not be able to head home for Christmas and treatment would begin immediately.
“At first, it was kinda like why me? I’m always a healthy kid and I try super hard in school,” Rowan said, “but the next day I was in the mindset of being positive and beating this thing, which I’m doing.”
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Since his diagnosis, Rowan has fought, fully aware that it would be a long race, not a 50-meter sprint.
He’s maintained a positive mindset and has required those around him to do the same. He will hear no pity talk and his athletic mindset won’t allow him to even think about losing.
“The most Weston does is he gets really quiet, you can’t rehash things around him,” his mother, Jackie Rowan, said. “He doesn’t want to hear it. He wants to move forward. His head is so in this game and we just cross off the days.”
Weston is the second of Drew and Jackie Rowan’s two children and is described as an “old soul,” always quick with a joke or to mimic a close friend or family member.
He’s spent the majority of the last two months at Children’s Hospital of Orange County. Even doctors and nurses aren’t spared from his ability to impersonate their motions or vocal inflections.
“I’m not going to get anywhere if I’m sitting here and pouting, laughter is the best medicine,” he said. “I just have to face up to it. It’s a new norm for now and everyone here is like family. It helps when you get to know everybody.”
Rowan began swimming at San Clemente Aquatics at 8 years old. He excelled at the 100- and 200-meter backstroke as well as the 200- and 400-meter individual medley.
But swimming isn’t his only love. At 6-foot-5, Rowan could be a coveted body on the basketball court, but he relishes being a spectator, often watching games with his father.
“He honestly keeps track of basketball more than swimming, he just loves it,” sister Jenna Rowan said. “He gets a Make-A-Wish and he wants to go to the NBA Finals and sit courtside.”
With school, training and surfing, Rowan kept busy before his diagnosis.
Some Pac-12 schools have already taken notice of Rowan’s abilities. His goal is to attend either USC or Stanford and both programs have reached out to the Rowans after hearing news of Weston’s condition.
USC wanted to send the swim team down to visit. Stanford sent a backpack with well-wishes and signatures from team members and, according to Jenna Rowan, are planning on making a hype video.
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Since his Christmas Eve diagnosis, Rowan has endured four rounds of chemotherapy and 12 spinal fusions. He has a port installed in his chest – connected to his main artery – to feed intravenous fluids and chemotherapy into his system.
“Our dad asked what the first thing he would do when he got his port out,” Jenna Rowan said. “Whether it might be Disneyland, or something like that, but no. He wants to get back in the water and train. He loves swimming.”
His blond hair is gone and the effects of chemotherapy have rendered him ill on more than one occasion, including a spell where he couldn’t swallow and had to return to CHOC.
“Everything is under control and when I’m here. I’m more relaxed,” Rowan said. “When you’re home, you always worry about germs because counts are down.”
Burkitt’s lymphoma is aggressive and moves rapidly. However, Burkitt’s is also curable, “the cells melt away during chemotherapy,” Jackie Rowan said.
After Weston’s first round of chemotherapy, a scan showed no remaining cancerous cells, but Rowan still had five more rounds to go.
His fifth round, a shortened treatment, started Monday and his final long treatment is scheduled for next week. Burkitt’s lymphoma doesn’t normally return once it’s been cured.
Rowan will have a check-up in June just to be sure.
“He knows he’s going to beat this,” Jackie Rowan said. “We’ll all come out of this forever changed. All we have is today and that’s the take of it. To witness this as a mom is the hardest thing you could imagine, but he’s going through it so you have to be brave and strong for him and pull yourself out of this pit of despair. He’s a fighter.”
Jackie Rowan said her son has shed tears only twice through the ordeal – after the initial diagnosis and after world-renowned surfer Kelly Slater sent him a video wishing him all the best.
“He has a lot of people rooting for him,” Jackie Rowan said. “We’ll all come out of this forever changed.”
While Rowan plans on returning to the pool, the fight has shown him, as well as his family, the importance of acceptance and patience. Such experiences don’t just occur without having an effect on one’s life and Rowan has made some decisions during his fight.
He plans to visit CHOC and be involved with others who are battling cancer. He also plans on competing in nationals again to make up for the meet that cancer took away this year.
“I want to go to nationals again and use that as my comeback meet,” Rowan said. “I’m just looking forward to getting back in the pool and traveling and giving back to the hospital.”
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