IU senior Connor McWhinney knows what it’s like to have your world change in an instance.
His senior year of high school, McWhinney was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer of the lymphatic system that required three months of chemotherapy at Riley Hospital for Children at IU Health.
The diagnosis changed the McWhinney’s life, not only giving him a new outlook but eventually connecting him with IU Dance Marathon, an event that has become the core of his time at IU Bloomington.
“Dance Marathon has given me a chance to build relationships that I never would have,” he said. “Being around people who are so passionate about what they do changes your outlook on life. It has given me the opportunity to give back to a hospital that really does change lives.”
McWhinney is one of thousands of students who will participate in this year’s IU Dance Marathon, taking place Nov. 4 to 6. The event was started in 1991 by former IU student Jill Stewart Waibel in honor of her friend Ryan White, a patient at Riley Hospital for Children who became an AIDS activist after contracting HIV through contaminated blood transfusions. Since then, IU Dance Marathon — the second-largest student-run philanthropic organization in the nation — has raised more than $23 million to support Riley Hospital
“IUDM is unlike any other organization on campus, or in the nation, because it brings together so many people from different backgrounds,” said Shelbey Vandenbroucke, director of public relations for IUDM. “A lot of students are involved because Riley Hospital for Children has personally impacted them, whether they received outpatient treatment or doctors there actually saved their lives. Students who are passionate about Dance Marathon will stop at nothing to make sure that the kids at Riley get the best possible treatment, giving their own time and steadfast commitment.”
McWhinney was a senior in high school when he went to the doctor for what he presumed was a benign tumor in his neck. On his 18th birthday, a CT scan revealed multiple tumors in his neck and chest. The Carmel native was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma and sought treatment at Riley.
“It was a complete shock,” he said of the diagnosis. “There is not a lot of hope when you hear the word ‘cancer.’ You never know what the outcome will be.”
But from the get-go, McWhinney decided he was going to keep a positive attitude, even when losing all of his hair or missing out on his senior year of high school. In fact, McWhinney’s cancer diagnosis ended up changing not only his outlook on life but his future plans. He went from being a prospective business student to studying neuroscience, with the hopes of one day becoming a pediatric oncologist.
“I view it as the biggest blessing in my life,” he said. “It put life in deeper perspective — what life means, how valuable it is and how quick it could go. It also opened the door to a new passion, which is working with kids, those in need and those who are sick.”
That new passion eventually led McWhinney to take part in IU Dance Marathon. The first year he danced, McWhinney felt an instant connection to the group.
“As soon as I got to the event, it felt like family,” he said. “You could see relationships people had formed, the passion of the students. I felt like this was my home, these are the people I want to spend my college years with, giving back to this cause and giving back to the hospital that saved me.”
McWhinney’s involvement expanded beyond dancing. He is now one of approximately 1,500 students who serve on 17 committees, spending an entire year raising money, recruiting students and raising awareness about IU Dance Marathon and its mission.
He currently serves as co-subcommittee chair of education on the hospital relations committee. He educates dancers, donors and the community about Riley Hospital and the support IUDM provides and spends time with Riley families facing some of the same fears and uncertainties he faced three years ago.
Throughout the year, his committee spends time visiting families at Riley, providing monthly baby showers for mothers with children in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit and cooking for families staying at the Ronald McDonald House.
“I enjoy connecting with the families there,” he said. “We have an understanding that we have gone through something that is life-changing, something most people haven’t gone through. IUDM allows me to continue to tell my story and to help others who will face the same thing.”
More information about IU Dance Marathon, including ways to donate, is available online.