Penn State

Youth cancer survivor happy to reunite with ‘family’ at Thon 5K

Gabrielle Chapman, 14, receives a “happy birthday” necklace during the Thon 5K Sunday at Penn State.
Gabrielle Chapman, 14, receives a “happy birthday” necklace during the Thon 5K Sunday at Penn State.

Gabrielle Chapman will tell her story to anyone who will listen.

The tale could be told in bullet points — she had cancer, almost didn’t survive through the worst of times and lives with the effects of it. And now, years later, her story continues to evolve because of the family she got along the way — her Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon family.

Sunday’s Thon 5K revealed the latest chapter in her journey. Gabrielle pinned a button to her shirt for her 14th birthday, wore a blue and pink tutu and watched younger kids race near the Bryce Jordan Center.

“When I come back from it, I’ll tell people what I did this weekend,” she said. “My friends like hearing about Thon. They think it’s cool I’m in Thon and that I’m a cancer survivor.”

Time has changed her perspective in the decade since she defeated cancer.

Gabrielle, of Lancaster, no longer includes herself in Thon activities geared toward preteens. She has matured to the point where almost all of the activities aren’t nearly as appealing as it had been a few years ago. The real treat, she said, is being with the students who volunteer for her.

Families like the Chapmans are adopted by Thon organizations during their fight against cancer. Their first org was Penn State Abington, and later Penn State Harrisburg.

Her birthday wish had nothing to do a the newest iPhone, Surface or concert tickets — she just wanted to see her Thon family.

Rockie Long showed up first in a long cape and danced with Gabrielle. Emma Lerchen followed minutes later with small birthday gifts. Another eight students from Penn State Harrisburg made a small circle around Gabrielle.

“I just stop and think about what Gabrielle’s been through,” her mother, Peg Chapman, said. “It’s amazing to me. We got lucky in more ways than one. We’re really blessed to have her.”

The doctor stepped into a small side room with the Chapmans about 12 years ago at Penn State Hershey Medical Center.

Gabrielle, who had just turned 2, was “as happy as could be” sitting on her mom Peg’s lap. Her dad Jere was in the room, too, waiting, not knowing what they were up against and trying to process the doctor’s news.

Gabrielle was diagnosed with medulloblastoma, and the doctor said the 4-centimeter brain tumor should be removed.

“My husband is a numbers person, and he asked what percentage of survival she had if we didn’t do surgery,” Peg Chapman said. “The doctor asked us, ‘Do you want your daughter or not?’ He told us it would block her spinal chord completely, she will throw up every day and within six months she won’t be here.”

Her post-surgery odds were not overwhelmingly positive either — about 2 in 5 children diagnosed with medulloblastoma do not survive for five more years, according to the American Cancer Society.

Four months into Gabrielle’s battle was the closest the Chapmans were to losing her.

Their little girl had been shaved bald for several weeks due to clumps of hair failing out. An allergic reaction, found to be from soap the hospital used to clean sheets, caused her skin to peel, leaving her with fire-red cheeks and hands. She grew increasingly sick, leading to her throat swelling and sores forming in her mouth.

“It was stunning to me when I walked into her room one day after a few hours away,” Peg Chapman said. “Here’s my bald child, with red patches all over and now she’s wearing an oxygen mask. And I didn’t know what was going on, and they told me it was so she could breathe better. That February was horrible. We didn’t know if she was going to make it or not.”

Elizabeth Chapman put her arm around her younger sister while Peg and Jere Chapman recounted their journey.

The parents usually tell Gabrielle’s story together — they have since their first meet-and-greet with about 20 Penn State Abington students more than a decade ago. They were also surprised when Gabrielle wanted to give a speech in her science class without them.

Gabrielle had gone through chemotherapy and had a stem cell transplant. The class was covering stem cell research, which motivated her to speak.

“They were asking a lot of questions and they wanted to know more about what I went through,” Gabrielle said. “That made me feel good.”

Gabrielle is growing more comfortable with the attention thrust on her. She’s proud to be a cancer survivor, but always tells people she’s a normal kid.

“I like to say I beat it and moved on,” she said.

She also can never quite get away from it, so the family tries to do as many speeches as possibles. They also meet with their Thon org at least once a month — every time a celebration of her life.

“She teaches you so much just by being around her,” Lerchen said. “She teaches you to be a fighter and to turn every situation into something good.”

The celebration is also never really over.

The Chapmans will visit their Thon family in Harrisburg this weekend for a spa day, one more gift for Gabrielle’s birthday.

It will be one more story she can tell.

Shawn Annarelli: 814-235-3928, @Shawn_Annarelli