First year at Elon a new beginning for John Varney ’23

John Varney '23 was diagnosed in 2017 with osteosarcoma, jeopardizing his chances of attending college. Two years later, he has begun a new journey at Elon with a new outlook on life.

From high school to college, a transition takes place – one that can be difficult to truly understand until you’ve experienced it firsthand.

“It still hasn’t set in that I’m in college,” said John Varney ’23. “I miss my dog a lot, but because my schedule is so busy, I haven’t had a chance to sit down and chill and just let it set in that I’m hundreds of miles from home.”

For Varney, the transition might be a bit more surreal than normal because his journey to Elon almost never happened.

In 2017, Varney had been dealing with pain in his knee, thinking he’d sprained it on a whitewater rafting trip. When the pain hadn’t subsided weeks later, Varney visited his doctor on Oct. 6.

“I did an X-Ray, and the orthopedist was like, ‘You need to go to a hospital first thing in the morning,'” Varney said. “So, the next day, my dad and I spent the whole day at the hospital to get a biopsy and a lot of X-Rays, and it turned out that I had an 8-inch tumor in my left femur and nodules in both my lungs.”

Varney was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer. Ten days after his first visit to the doctor, with what he thought was a knee sprain, Varney started chemotherapy at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.

John Varney ’23 receives treatment at Johns Hopkins Hospital. (Courtesy: John Varney ’23)

As it turned out, that was just the beginning of his battle. The Washington, D.C., native moved to New York in January 2018, where he had his femur, kneecap and 2 inches of his tibia replaced. He would later move back home, traveling to New York each week for treatment, including the removal of the nodules in his lungs. As the nodules continued to return – despite taking an experimental drug to prevent reoccurrence – Varney required four lung surgeries during the next year and a half.

Meanwhile, Varney was still trying to complete his senior year of high school, a challenge he said would have been much more difficult without the support of his classmates.

“All my friends came over to my house and hung out with me,” he said. “I was the manager of my baseball team, and they were so supportive of me. They all shaved their heads with me. So, it was nice having everyone there.”

Varney also found support from someone who understood exactly what he felt. After his diagnosis, Varney was introduced to Olivia Egge, a friend of a friend who had been diagnosed with osteosarcoma just before he was.

“We text every day,” Varney said. “That’s probably the reason I had such a great mindset because I had somebody who knew exactly what I was going through.”

Varney and Egge became more than just a mutual support system. They became partners in a fight against the disease they and others were trying to beat. Varney and Egge, now a student at the University of Virginia, worked with the Osteosarcoma Collaborative to raise $1.5 million for osteosarcoma research through the St. Baldrick’s Foundation’s “Brave the Shave” campaign.

“There haven’t been a lot of advancements in the treatment of osteosarcoma over the past four years,” Varney said. “So, we feel like it’s our responsibility – because we’ve been able to get such good treatment – to make it more accessible to others.”

While he worked to help others, there was still the question of whether Varney would be able to continue his education after high school. He’d already been accepted to Elon, but doctors had their concerns.

“They weren’t sure I’d be able to go to Elon because, if the tumor kept growing, I would have had to do a separate trial in New York,” he said.

But, on Aug. 21, 2019 – two days before Move-In Day – Varney got the news he’d waited two years to hear.

“The tumor had shrunk a lot,” he said. “[Doctors] were just hoping it would stop growing, but it shrank. And, that’s when I found out I would be able to go to Elon.”

Now, Varney, who plans to major in Finance and to one day start a career in the banking industry, comes to Elon for a chance at a new beginning.

“The whole thing still hasn’t really set in,” he said.

Varney must still keep a close eye on his health. During the first week of classes, he and his family traveled to Boston for a doctor’s appointment to update his progress. But, to Varney’s surprise, that wasn’t the only purpose of the trip.

“I saw we were going up there for like three days, and said, ‘It’s an early morning appointment, what are we doing for the next day and a half?'”

John Varney ’23 poses for a photo with New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. (Courtesy: John Varney ’23)

As it turns out, he was meeting one of his idols. Varney’s parents, along with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, surprised him with a trip to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts, to meet New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Varney and his family had the chance to talk to Brady, who signed autographs and played catch with Varney. 

“I was amazed my parents were able to surprise me,” Varney said, calling Brady, a six-time Super Bowl champion, “the most fun guy.”

Now, with a memory to last a lifetime, a powerful story to tell and an entire college career ahead of him, Varney wants others to know that there is beauty in struggle.

“Everything happens for a reason, and that makes you who you’re meant to become,” he said. “Everyone goes through different adversity – some people go through really hard stuff – but when you get through it, you come out stronger. So, just know, the adversity is always worth it.”