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San Clemente High School swimmer Weston Rowan in San Clemente on Thursday, April 6, 2017 has returned to swimming after missing his sophomore season because of an aggressive form of Lymphoma. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Orange County Register/SCNG)

San Clemente's Rowan rises from depths of cancer battle

OCVARSITY.COM

SAN CLEMENTE White sunscreen covers Weston Rowan’s face as he grabs the bar of the starting block on a cloudless afternoon. He steadies his feet against the wall of the pool and launches into a back dive toward a glistening, aqua-blue shelter below.

One of Rowan’s powerful dolphin kicks briefly breaks the surface of the water during his descent but soon only the black silhouette of his body is visible. His long and lean frame speeds underwater like a torpedo.

Just before he reaches the far end of the pool, Rowan surfaces and slows his pace. The San Clemente junior knows how to rise from the depths.

Rowan has returned from a life-threatening, eight-month battle with an aggressive cancer to post several lifetime-best times and emerge as one of the Orange County swimmers to watch in next month’s championship season.

After missing all of his sophomore season, he recorded a pair of top-eight finishes for the Tritons at the recent Mission Viejo Invitational. In a club meet in March, he won the grueling, 400-yard individual medley at the U.S. western sectional in Carlsbad in 3 minutes, 56.79 seconds.

“To be at his level of swimming after this is totally mind-blowing,” said Goran Westerlund, Rowan’s club coach with San Clemente Aquatics. “He has this tremendous strength.”

The 6-foot-4, 195-pound Rowan pulls double workouts, the first at 5:30 a.m., twice a week. He supplements his pool training by lifting weights at the gym.

But just over a year ago, Rowan’s life was much different.

'I'M GOING TO BEAT THIS'

Jackie Rowan wasn’t sure how much more chemotherapy her son could take.

Weston's fight against non-Hodgkin lymphoma was in its fourth month in March and he had lost considerable weight. At one point, Weston said he weighed 138 pounds, 60 pounds less than his current weight.

His form of cancer, known as Burkitt lymphoma, started in the immune cells and spread rapidly. The cancer was treatable but tripled in amount every 48 hours, Jackie said. And it penetrated Rowan’s brain fluid.

The cancer wasn’t the only obstacle. The chemotherapy sessions at Children’s Hospital of Orange County, which started Dec. 26, 2015 to destroy the cancer, were draining.

“We almost lost him in March because of the chemo, not the cancer,” Jackie said. “He got the worst gastro-intestinal tract infection. … He couldn’t eat.”

Jackie shared her concern with a nurse one day in March when she thought Rowan was asleep in his room. The possibility of a feeding tube came up.

When the nurse left, Rowan summoned his mother to his bedside, where she had been since his diagnosis.

“Please don’t ever say that,” Rowan told his mother. “Don’t ever say I can’t take it. I can take it and I’m going to beat this.”

MANY MONTHS OF TREATMENT

Rowan wasn’t one to get sick. But after qualifying for the U.S. junior nationals in November of 2015, he started to feel under the weather.

He had numbness in his jaw. He was tired. Possible explanations were explored, leading to thoughts about dental problems, fatigue from training, to a virus.

Rowan still wanted to race at junior nationals, which were in early December in Austin, Texas. His condition, however, worsened. On the plane’s landing, he felt “something pop” in his head.

Instead of heading to the pool before the meet, Rowan retreated to the hotel to rest. But after finishing a distant last and struggling to breathe in his meet-opening 200-yard IM, he and his mother changed course.

They left Texas the next day and returned to Orange County for more testing. Finally, after a blood panel with an internist in late December, they were told Rowan’s platelets were dangerously low. He should go immediately to an emergency room.

Rowan made it to a hospital but fainted on the scale. The next stop was CHOC.

Rowan learned of his diagnosis on Christmas Day of 2015. The cancer had been attacking him during his trip to Texas and that “pop” on the plane was actually a brain bleed.

“The life (was) being sucked out of me,” he said in hindsight.

Rowan stayed at CHOC for much of the next 5 1/2 months. He received numerous chemotherapy treatments through his lumbar region to access his spinal cord.

“I had to be put under 20 times for that,” he said. “That caused really bad back pain.”

He received the chemotherapy intravenously through a port in his chest.

Rowan also lost all his hair during the treatments but still maintained a positive attitude. He danced to rap songs by Drake before his anesthesia procedures and found motivation from watching basketball videos that featured LeBron James.

Rowan said he found support from the CHOC staff, including Dr. Ivan Kirov and his nurses. His parents, Jackie and Drew, and sister, Jenna, also provided boosts as did his late uncle, Phil Lee, who later died of cancer.

“He saved Weston’s life,” Jackie said of Kirov. “(CHOC) was like our family.”

His high school and club teams supported Rowan by donning “Weston Warriors” T-shirts.

And he eventually consumed bone broth to avoid a feeding tube.

A NEW PERSPECTIVE

Rowan’s return to swimming progressed quickly after his final chemotherapy treatment on May 28, 2016. Motivated by Game 7 of the NBA Finals in mid-June, he began limited training, much to the surprise of close teammate and supporter Brad Prolo.

“Within a week, he was already keeping up with me and I was so surprised,” Prolo said.

Rowan returned to competition in December at the Winter Age-Group Championship in Santa Barbara. In his first meet in about a year, he posted lifetime-best times in five events.

Rowan aspires to swim in college but his battle with his cancer -- now in remission -- left him with a new perspective and interests.

He is a member of Teen Cancer America and wants to give back to those who helped him. Rowan wears a black bracket with the inscription, “Pain is temporary. Quitting lasts forever.”

“You can’t complain (about small things),” he said. “I was always focusing on getting back in the pool … (but) if I have my health, then that’s my everything.”


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