By Cecilla Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Mason Rowley had big-life plans – go on a mission for his church, graduate from college, marry and become a father.
But Mason never realized his goals. He died last year just two days before his 17th birthday – ending a three-year battle with glioblastoma, an aggressive form of brain cancer with no cure.
“He was really positive in dealing with his illness,” said Andrew Wright, who met Mason in 2015 when they both ran track at Mesquite Junior High School. “It was really hard for him but every time I saw him, he was cracking jokes as much as he could.”
Although Mason died in June, he was not forgotten by Andrew as he contemplated his Eagle Scout service project that came to fruition yesterday.
“I wanted to do something personal,” the 16-year-old junior at Mesquite High School explained. “And Mason popped into my head.”
Andrew spearheaded a 5K Remembrance Run/Walk to celebrate Mason’s life and to benefit other cancer fighters in the community at Mesquite High School.
He partnered on the event with Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children that supports families receiving care for pediatric cancer at the suggestion of Mason’s family.
“Arizona Cancer Foundation for Children helped our family so much, not only monetary but emotionally,” said Nicolle Rowley.
She said donations from Saturday’s event will go toward the Scottsdale nonprofit’s project, Ava’s Tree House.
Because children with cancer have weakened immune systems, they must stay away from crowded places such as movie theaters, parks, playgrounds and libraries.
Ava’s Tree House is envisioned as a sterilized place for children with cancer to have a childhood with amenities, including an indoor playground, an art room, a music room and a K9 therapy dog room for visits. One room will be named Mason’s Cinema in memory of the teen.
“He loved going to movies,” Rowley said of her only son. “He was a huge movie buff.”
Mason was such a big fan of the “Iron Man” movies that he earned the nickname, Iron MAsoN. He even got the chance to meet Robert Downey Jr., the star who portrayed the Marvel Comics’ superhero in the movies.
According to Rowley, Mason, her firstborn, was an all-around amazing kid who took honor classes, a Boy Scout, a member of his church’s youth group, artistic, played the electric guitar, ran the mile in track and, most importantly, accepted everyone.
“He was friends with everybody,” Rowley said. “He was kind to everybody. He loved everybody and everybody loved him in return.”
Mason had completed eighth grade when he started experiencing frequent headaches.
“A couple of weeks after school got out, he had what we assumed a mild seizure at home,” Rowley said. “I realized it was something to go to the ER for. I insisted they do an MRI and would not leave until they did.”
Mason was diagnosed with a brain tumor and was admitted to ICU with surgery scheduled three days later.
“But the next morning, he coded,” Rowley said. “He pretty much died. His heart stopped and he stopped breathing. He was revived, God intervened.”
But the tumor had caused Mason’s brain to hemorrhage, which resulted in a stroke.
“He couldn’t talk, walk, eat – his whole left side of the body was entirely paralyzed and his right side was weak,” Rowley said. “But he was bound and determined not to let it get to him.”
Through physical therapy, Mason soon learned to walk again with the aid of a cane.
At the time Mason was diagnosed, the family was well-acquainted with cancer. Rowley, now 38, was diagnosed in 2013 with colon cancer and has been battling the disease since.
“At the time he was diagnosed, it was so surreal,” Rowley said. “I would never have thought my child would be dealing with cancer, too. But he always told me, ‘we will fight this.’ He was more of a help to me that I was for him sometimes.”
Doctors initially gave Mason six to eight months to live, but for the next three years he held on, traveling to Texas and California for treatments, as this type of brain cancer is rare among children.
“He was so strong and positive,” said Rowley, whose husband, Jesse, eventually had to quit work to become a caregiver for his family. “Unfortunately, he had a cancer that was terminal.”
The cancer soon spread to Mason’s spine, paralyzing him from the chest down, leaving him with partial use of his right arm and both hands, Rowley said.
“He could talk and his faculties, his humor were completely there,” she said. “He was all Mason. He truly didn’t let it stop him from doing what he wanted to do.”
For instance, through the nonprofit group Ability360 in Phoenix, Mason did adaptive rock climbing, Rowley said.
During his ordeal, Mason’s friends rallied around him.
“He had an amazing group of friends that supported and carried him through the years,” Rowley said. “He was sad he couldn’t go to school dances, but his amazing friends got him to school dances.”
Mason always had hopes he would beat his cancer and talked about his future, she said.
“He wanted to graduate from high school and he would have with honors, and he wanted to serve a mission with our church,” Rowley said. “He wanted to go to college, to MIT because he was very much into robotics. Eventually he wanted to get married and he talked about his children and raising them.”
But, he never got his driver’s license or graduated from high school. He was scheduled to go to Gilbert High School but never attended a day of class.
“When he passed, in a way it was expected,” Rowley said. “In January of last year, he was actually the first pediatric patient to have (the experimental) T-Cell therapy for glioblastoma in California, and after that we pretty much exhausted all options for treatment.
“There were no other treatments,” she added. “The doctors gave him months at that point, not years. His tumors were growing and he had more pain in his back and headaches.”
In May of last year, Mason suffered a massive seizure and the family thought they would lose him then, but he pulled through.
“He was still living and we were still able to get him out and about,” Rowley said. “But this type of cancer affects the brain and memory and he got short-term memory lapses and he slept all the time.”
Rowley said the family pretty much realized they would not have much longer with Mason, but his birthday was coming up on June 15.
“I knew he was kind of waiting for his birthday,” she said. “He loved birthdays.”
Mason, however, died on June 13 – the birthday of his only sister, Madisen.
“To the day he died, he lived life to the fullest,” Rowley said. “That is what people were drawn to. Before his cancer he had lots of friends and after his diagnosis, it was a way for him to reach more people and show no matter what life throws at you, you can choose to turn it around and live each day to the fullest and have hope and be positive.”
Rowley said she sees many of Mason’s attributes, like his determination, in Madisen.
“She’s a trooper,” Rowley said. “She’s lost her best friend, her brother, her only sibling. She is 13 and she was 6 when I was diagnosed, so much of her life she has known cancer. It’s been part of her life.”
Rowley said their faith and the support from extended family members and the community have helped sustain them.
When Andrew approached the family about doing the 5K in honor of Mason, they gave him their full endorsement for bringing awareness about childhood cancer, Rowley said.
“Lots of people don’t know about childhood cancer until you have a child go through it,” she said. “You don’t realize how many children go through it and how it affects the family.
“It’s very taxing. It’s something unless you have community support, friends and family to help pay your bills you will lose everything before you lose your child.”
The 5K also in a way accomplished another one of Mason’s life goals – to achieve the Eagle Scout rank, which is earned after completing an Eagle project.
“He was so close,” Rowley said. “He only had to do a project, but he got sick and didn’t have the right timing to get it done.”
Now, Andrew has done that for Mason.
“In a way it’s come full circle,” Rowley said. “Andrew is doing his Eagle Scout project and he’s getting his honor for Mason. Mason is aware he is finally getting that Eagle Scout award because of Andrew.”