A UI student and cancer survivor gives back to an organization that helped her as a patient, while inspiring student-volunteers and patients alike.
Jamie Habenicht is intimately familiar with the world of cancer—the tests and treatments, frustration and faith.
It’s a bond she shares with the children she meets as a volunteer with Dance Marathon, a University of Iowa student organization dedicated to supporting pediatric cancer patients and their families.
“I try to help other patients see that they can get through it, too, and that life will return to normal,” she says. “I hope they see that I went through it and I came out fine.”
The finance major from Bettendorf, Iowa, was first diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma—a childhood cancer that often occurs in the bone or soft tissue—in 2003 when she was about to enter her junior year of high school. Often short of breath, the basketball player went through several months of testing before doctors discovered a football-sized tumor in her chest cavity.
Habenicht was sent to the University of Iowa Children’s Hospital, where she underwent chemotherapy, radiation, and two major surgeries.
“To be thrown into the world of cancer, it was surreal,” says her mom, Dalette Habenicht.
Overwhelmed, the family was touched by the support of Dance Marathon, which provided parking passes, cafeteria coupons, and gas vouchers for the frequent visits to Iowa City. Student-volunteers also visited Habenicht’s room frequently to play games and talk.
“They were small but big things,” Dalette Habenicht says. “The strength and support they gave us was invaluable.”
UI Dance Marathon provides emotional and financial support to oncology patients treated at UI Children’s Hospital and their families. An annual 24-hour dance-a-thon celebrates fundraising milestones, honors cancer patients and survivors, and mourns those lost during the year. (This year’s “big event” will be held Friday-Saturday, Feb. 6-7, 2009 in the Main Lounge of the Iowa Memorial Union.)
Habenicht’s cancer went into remission after nine months of treatment in May 2004, and Habenicht entered The University of Iowa as a first-year student the following year. She got involved with Dance Marathon as a way to give back to the organization, raising more than $400 as a dancer her first year.
“I wanted to help them help other kids because I’d been there and knew what it was like,” she says.
But in June 2006, Habenicht became a patient again when a routine scan showed her cancer had returned. Doctors began chemotherapy, and in December of that year, she had a stem cell transplant that kept her in the hospital for 44 days.
After her transplant, Dance Marathon volunteers visited her room almost daily to play games and help her pass the time. They helped Habenicht stay connected to the world outside the hospital.
“Being there for so long, it gets boring after awhile,” Habenicht says. “It was nice to have people my age to look forward to seeing.”
Habenicht returned to campus as a full-time student in fall 2007 and continues her participation with Dance Marathon. For one week during the summer, Habenicht also is a counselor at a central Iowa camp for cancer patients, survivors, and siblings sponsored by Heart Connection Children’s Cancer Programs.
Habenicht, now a UI junior, remains cancer free. She’s focused on a future in business, though she doesn’t forget what she’s been through. She plans to stay connected to cancer patients through Dance Marathon—she’ll be a spirit dancer at this year’s event—and continue her participation with the summer camp.
“Kids with cancer can feel her love and caring spirit,” Dalette Habenicht says of her daughter. “She can reassure them and can say, ‘I understand.’ I think it gives them sense of hope.”
Habenicht also gives encouragement to fellow Dance Marathon volunteers.
In 2007, still weak from her transplant, Habenicht went on stage during Dance Marathon’s big event to share her story.
Don’t quit, she told the dancers. Staying on your feet for 24 hours is hard. But cancer—the years of treatment, sickness, and pain—is much harder.
Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; photo by Kirk Murray
February 2, 2009