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Together, we’ll conquer cancer: How Katie Sowers received support from both dairy and THON ‘families’

Rebecca Shaw for Progressive Dairyman Published on 21 July 2016
Katie Sowers and THON family

Meet Katie Sowers. She is a junior at Greenwood High School in Millerstown, Pennsylvania. Or should I say, she is a very busy junior in high school. She’s involved with many activities, including FFA, serving as historian in her local 4-H Club, showing Ayrshires and Holsteins, and participating in Pennsylvania Junior Holstein activities.

This past year, Katie created a scientific display showcasing methane production, earning second place at the state convention’s intermediate division and first place at the national convention. This is a repeat winning appearance for Katie, after she won third place both at the Pennsylvania contest and nationals with her display on embryo transfer in 2015.

She also enjoys participating in baking competitions at the Perry County Fair (I’m still waiting on that peanut butter cookie recipe, Katie!), attending St. John’s Barner’s Lutheran Church and crocheting (I’m also still waiting on cow-themed hot pads for pulling my peanut butter cookies out of the oven).

So far, Katie sounds like another young woman rocking and rolling in the dairy industry. However, she is so much more than that. Katie is a survivor of cancer. She was diagnosed with neuroblastoma in October 2010‎, and she has battled her way to recovery. Katie’s last surgery was in September 2014, and she has been in remission ever since. She finished her last chemotherapy treatment on Feb. 1, 2016. Though these dates are milestones in Katie’s life, it was her journey with her family, her love for the dairy industry and her experience with THON that motivated her along the way.

Four Diamonds organization

The Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, referred to as THON, is a student-run philanthropy at Pennsylvania State University (PSU) that raises money to support children and families impacted by childhood cancer through the Four Diamonds Fund at Penn State Hershey Children’s Hospital. Their mission is “to provide emotional and financial support, spread awareness and ensure funding for critical research – all in pursuit of a cure.” Students raise money year-round, culminating in a dance marathon in February, where select students stand, without sitting or sleeping, for 46 hours straight.

Student organizations across all of Penn State’s campuses are involved with THON. Each organization raises money toward a grand total revealed at the end of the dance marathon. Organizations are also able to be paired with a THON family – and that’s where Katie comes in. Katie and her family hoped to be paired with an agricultural organization; however, in 2013 they became the THON family of the PSU Behrend campus in Erie. Though it wasn’t the initial hope, the relationship with Katie’s THON family turned out for the best. Many of the students come from Erie and surrounding areas near Behrend, so it was easier for them to visit Katie while she was at the UPMC Presbyterian Hospital for treatments, strengthening their relationships and friendships.

Beth, Katie’s mom, describes how impactful their experience was. “The phone calls, the texts, the surprise gifts in the mail, the get-togethers, the love and support from this family – it’s all just amazing,” she says. “It can be overwhelming because sometimes they know exactly when to send a text or a card in the mail.”

showing cows

Katie and Beth have kept in contact with several of their THON family members, and they have been introducing them to the dairy industry that’s played such a big part in their lives before, during and after cancer. Katie has even had the opportunity to bring one of them, Melanie Koster, along to the most recent Pennsylvania Junior Holstein Convention. I met Koster at the dairy bar, and was able to talk to her about her experiences with Katie, THON and the dairy industry.

“Katie is loved very, very much, and I think that having two communities (the community involved in the dairy industry, as well as her THON family) who love and support her through everything, may have made it less difficult,” Koster says. “It's hard for me to say since I can't imagine what she's been through, but I do hope Katie knows how much she means to me and the other lives she's touched. I think her being able to share her interests about dairy and her cows with her THON family really helped us connect with her and talk with her, and I hope she has felt cared for and supported through all of this. And I know she and her mom have been advocating for THON/Four Diamonds, as well. I hope combining these two parts of her life helped her battle through and made her feel better.”

Because of Katie’s experience with THON, she has been able to spread the awareness of the organization and how it can help others throughout the dairy industry. Recently, a young girl named Gracie, whose mom Katie knows through 4-H, was diagnosed with cancer. Katie called her THON family and asked them to pray for the young girl, and Katie and Beth told Gracie’s mom about THON and how it helped their family. Now, Gracie has been paired with a THON family at PSU (and it’s an agricultural organization, the Delta Theta Sigma Fraternity). It is connections like this one that make our industry so, well ... incredible!

When I really sit down and think about it, I can’t name one person I’ve met who hasn’t been affected by cancer, including my loved ones. Whether they have known someone, lost someone, survived it or even lost to it – cancer doesn’t have a type. However, when you combine the strength from a young lady like Katie, the heart and passion of an organization like THON and the support of the dairy industry, cancer can be fought and it can be beat.

To donate to THON and support the battle against pediatric cancer, visit the THON website. Joining the fight has been one of the best and most rewarding decisions I’ve ever made in my life, and I know it will be for you too.  PD

Rebecca Shaw is a past THON dancer and is now a dairy marketing specialist with Cargill Animal Nutrition. She also writes a dairy blog.

Editor’s note: Those interested in donating to THON can visit the website for more details. To have your donation designated to a specific organization, click the “donate” button and select the organization of your choice. To support the Behrend campus’s efforts, search for or select “Behrend.” To support Delta Theta Sigma Fraternity members, who have been paired with Gracie, search for or select “Delta Theta Sigma.” To support Alpha Zeta Fraternity, which is the organization Rebecca Shaw danced for, search for or select “Alpha Zeta.”

PHOTO 1: Beth and Katie Sowers, left, enjoy THON with students of the PSU Behrend campus.

PHOTO 2: Katie Sowers, seated in the bottom left of the photo, makes a diamond with her hands for the Four Diamonds organization, along with members of the PSU Behrend Campus in Erie, Pennsylvania.

PHOTO 3: Katie Sowers says her dairy industry friends were another source of encouragement and comfort while battling cancer. Photos provided by Beth Sowers.

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