Isaac Messner wanted to know if his diagnosis was bad.
That was the first question he asked when his doctor walked into his room at Hershey Medical Center, and at this stage of the game, the answer was looking more and more like a foregone conclusion.
First, there was his (very) recent medical history.
His mother had dropped him off at State College Area High School earlier that morning with some Tylenol and a few chest pains, the latter of which were an unfortunate souvenir from the previous evening’s track meet.
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And boy, were they persistent.
He checked in with the school nurse later that morning, which turned out to be just a brief pit stop on the way to the emergency room at Mount Nittany Medical Center, where a CAT scan and other assorted medical jargon quickly confirmed that the problem wasn’t in his heart.
This could have been interpreted as a good sign if not for the fact that Isaac and his father immediately got back in the car and drove to Hershey, where he had already been pre-admitted into the oncology ward.
If that weren’t enough, then there were the hereditary factors.
His mother, Anne Messner, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma at the age of 22. When Isaac was in sixth grade, the doctors told her she had breast cancer.
“He was old enough to remember mom not feeling good and having no hair,” Anne Messner said.
Even if Isaac hadn’t been a reasonably bright kid, he knew the signs — and all of them were pointing south.
Still, in all fairness, Isaac didn’t have a medical degree. In fact, when he entered his freshman year at State High, he wanted to be an architect.
But at that exact moment, what he wanted was the truth — and he wanted it straight.
The doctor told him that he had Hodgkin lymphoma. And Isaac, well …
Isaac was annoyed.
“I started to argue that that wasn’t the worst-case scenario,” Isaac said.
At the time, that attitude might have been considered boldly — maybe even brazenly — optimistic.
Now, with a clean positron emission tomography, or PET scan, and a stem cell transplant behind him, it seems right on the money.
On Saturday, Isaac will join State High’s other graduating seniors at the Bryce Jordan Center to celebrate the triumphs of the past and the possibilities of the future.
When he was a freshman, Isaac wanted to be an architect. When he was a sophomore, he was diagnosed with cancer. Now, he’s considering medical school.
Chances are that you’ve already heard of Isaac and have just been referring to him as “the kid who used his Make-A-Wish to get new uniforms for the track team” in your head since last spring.
That’s fine. He did do that, and it did receive the kind of media attention that selfless acts should but seldom receive.
Isaac, as it turns out, is among the less than 1 percent of wish recipients to indulge in the “give back” genre of requests, a statistic he would more than likely play down if given the opportunity.
Actually, he was given the opportunity and did just that.
“It’s been something that a lot of these guys have deserved for a long time,” Isaac said.
When Isaac commits to something, he jumps in headfirst. After the first of many visits to Hershey, he kept a long-standing appointment to join the other Boy Scouts in Troop 31 at Camp Anderson in Tyrone. He even told a campfire story.
Isaac will receive his Eagle Scout Award on June 25.
This was more than ambition — this was a dogged determination to not let his illness interfere with his life any more than it had to.
“To me, time is very important,” Isaac said.
During his roughly eight months of chemotherapy, Isaac continued to participate in track meets and practices.
His father, John Messner, remembers a meet in Circleville Park, where Isaac, the last runner on the field, trotted toward the finish line totally out of breath.
“Obviously the treatments were physically impacting his blood counts,” John said.
Everyone, including the race officials, crowded around Isaac to cheer him the rest of the way home.
Steve Shisler, the boys’ track and field coach, wasn’t surprised by Isaac’s show of spirit or even the new uniforms that arrived at the team’s proverbial doorstep at the start of the 2016 season.
If you would measure the size of his heart, he would probably have the biggest heart.
Track coach Steve Shisler
“If you were able to measure the size of the heart, he would probably have the biggest heart,” Shisler said.
His teammates and friends were equally impressed by the way that Isaac carried the weight of his diagnosis, a burden that on his shoulders appeared outwardly weightless.
The rumors had started to fly shortly after Isaac was admitted to the hospital, and when he returned to school, his friends had been expecting someone of a more depressed disposition.
“The way that he handled it made it really easy to talk about,” Jacob Witt, Isaac’s friend and track teammate, said.
Isaac wasn’t above using his condition to get in a quick laugh or two, an opportunity that presented itself every time he overheard somebody complain about an upcoming exam or class project.
“I would say ‘hey there are worse things you could be doing,’ ” Isaac said. “And kids would hate me for it.”
It was funny because it was true.
After chemo, Isaac began 14 rounds of radiation treatment. He and his parents would leave their house at 5 a.m., drive to Hershey for the procedure and then return in time to salvage most of what was left of the school day.
It was tough, but they got through it and in December 2014, Isaac was presented with a clean bill of health.
“It even got to the point where they took my port out, and they were ready to pronounce me all good,” Isaac said.
You know where this is going. Even he knew where this was going.
A relapse had always been presented as a possibility, so when a PET scan revealed a new mass it was not the time for histrionics.
“To be honest, I wasn’t all that shocked that it came back,” Isaac said.
Isaac was presented with a choice — he could either participate in a clinical trial involving two chemo drugs or undergo a stem cell transplant. The decision about what to do next was his and his alone.
He had been through enough that he should start making some of these decisions.
Mom Anne Messner
“To me, he was approaching adulthood and he had been through enough that he should start making some of these decisions,” Anne said.
For Isaac, it was ultimately a matter of expediency — what would get him back to his regularly scheduled programming as quickly as possible?
He tried the chemo drugs, and they knocked him for a loop. The stem cell transplant became the clear front-runner.
It’s hard to judge these kinds of decisions under the light of anything other than hindsight. In this case, it seems like Isaac made the right call.
His last PET scan in February was completely clean and by late spring, he was 13 out of 15 cycles shy of completing a round of experimental immunotherapy drugs.
“If he had made a different decision, we’d probably still be wondering,” John Messner said.
Instead, he and his wife will be at the Bryce Jordan Center on Saturday watching their son graduate.
Isaac’s cancer had a wicked sense of timing. It arrived during a period typically set aside for college visits, stayed through the SATs and left precious little room for senioritis on the medical chart.
He isn’t bitter though — coming out the other side of this, that would seem impractical.
It’s actually very hard for me to be truly angry.
“It’s actually very hard for me to be truly angry,” Isaac said.
The recognition he received during State High’s senior awards night shouldn’t make getting angry any easier. Isaac was bestowed the Matt Weakland Student Athlete Award and received a special certificate from the Navy for his leadership.
In the fall Isaac, will matriculate at Penn State, where he plans to study biology. He can do so secure in the knowledge that while cancer may have picked the fight, the odds are looking better and better that he’ll be the one to finish it.
“I think I hit back just as hard, if not better,” Isaac said. “I’m proud.”