When life throws you curves

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Penn State sports fans and journalism professors remember Erin Weidemann as Erin Norton, one busy yet happy and healthy college student-athlete.

As a student at Penn State in the early 2000s, Weidemann was pursuing degrees in both journalism and Spanish. She was also a standout first baseman on the Nittany Lion softball team, hitting at a clip that would eventually land her in the record books.

In her junior year, Weidemann felt a small lump on the left side of her neck, but had no other symptoms. Although she was traveling the country playing a 50-game schedule and juggling classes, she made time to have the lump checked by a doctor — who gave her a clean bill of health. 

Life had not thrown her a curveball after all. Or so she thought. With a busy schedule, it fell off Weidemann’s radar.

After graduation in 2003, Weidemann returned home to her native California and went into a career in finance. She worked on mortgages for a while and was having some monetary success. But the lump was still there.

She visited the doctor again; this time her mother Judy went along. That’s when, at the age of 26, her whole life changed almost instantly.

“The doctor, without a test even, did a quick physical exam,” she recalled, “and then just looked right into my eyes and said, ‘You have cancer. It has metastasized. I think it might be lymphoma or Hodgkin’s Disease, but it’s really bad. We have to perform a surgery tomorrow to confirm it.’

“It was the shock of a lifetime for me. It was really scary.”

She was diagnosed with metastatic thyroid cancer. The cancer had spread into her chest cavity, both sides of her neck and up into her brain stem. 

Over the next few months, Weidemann had multiple surgeries, including one that lasted nine hours. Months of physical therapy followed. Weidemann moved back in with her parents in Orange County, California. “At 26, after being successful, it’s a very humbling experience,” said Weidemann. 

She was essentially paralyzed from the chest up following the surgery, so it took time and grueling physical therapy to regain motion in her arms and neck. She couldn’t do simple, everyday things like getting dressed, eating and driving. She had to re-learn it all. 

For the athletic Weidemann, one of the hardest parts was not being able to do the simple things. At Penn State, she ranks third in all-time hits with 226 — but at that earlier time she could hardly lift her arm.

“Going from softball pitching and playing first base and being so involved in sports, to not being able to move, that was hard,” said Weidemann. 

 “It’s just a testament, too, to what physical therapy can do in terms of offering patients what they need to work themselves back. You have to be willing to work at it. I went four days a week for months and months until I regained all the movement in my arms.”

She got a clean bill of health about nine months later. But, after the first diagnosis, the cancer came back four more times over the next five years. It was a grueling and difficult time in Weidemann’s life. Until that point, Weidemann took pride in her independence. But now, she had to lean on others. 

“I always tried to do things on my own,” she said. “That was really a period for me where I had to lean so heavily on the people around me, my mom and dad and sister.”

There was a silver lining: “I met Brent [her husband] for the first time when I was right in the middle of all the treatment and new diagnosis.”

Countless surgeries, scans, therapy hours and radiation treatments followed. They finally ended five years ago. Weidemann has been completely clear of cancer since the end of 2012. 

The entire experience changed Weidemann and pointed her life in a new direction. Since then, she and Brent married, they had a daughter, and she embarked a career that is far from the financial world.

Erin and Brent — who is also a Penn State graduate with a degree in history — have devoted their lives to helping young girls through their "Bible Belles" book series, geared toward showing girls that "real beauty is not what the world says it is." Erin got back to her writing roots with the first series, “The Adventures of Rooney Cruz,” which highlights five “superhero women” of the Bible. Their 3-year-old daughter, Rooney Cruz Weidemann, is named after the main character in the books. 

In addition, Erin conducts speaking engagements and hosts a podcast to inspire girls around the world. That cancer curveball? She hit it out of the park.

After leaving Penn State, Erin spent a semester in Spain to finish her Spanish degree and then moved back to California to begin her career in finance. 

When she got sick, she decided she wanted to quit her job and go back to school to become a teacher. She also decided she wanted to volunteer more. So, she joined the Orange County Chapter of the Penn State Alumni Association. 

Brent Weidemann, a 2007 graduate, was already a member of the chapter. He lived in San Diego at the time, and would drive the almost 90 miles up to Orange County to participate in the chapter’s events. The two met during a Penn State football viewing party. 

“I instantly knew that I liked her,” said Brent. “I instantly knew this, and I’m not that kind of person. We had a really strong connection.” 

At the time, Erin was still going through treatments and didn’t know what her future held. Brent recalled the first time he told Erin he loved her, at the Gingerbread Man during a trip back to State College. 

“She kind of was dragging her feet into this because as our relationship got serious she went, ‘I’m going to die. You’re wasting your time dating me. I can’t have kids. I’m going to die soon. You deserve someone better.'"

Brent said he told Erin at the time, “That’s silly. I have other plans." As he explains now: “Everyone has baggage and crap they bring to a relationship, and I just didn’t care. I really kind of took ownership of when she got sick. I was like, ‘We are sick and we’re going to get through this together.’”

The relationship grew from there, and, eventually, the two married in 2010. In 2012, the idea for "Bible Belles" came about. Their niece, Hannah, was 5 years old at the time and was obsessed with Disney princesses. 

Erin asked her niece who her favorite woman in the Bible was. The little girl said she couldn’t name any. That planted the seed for an idea. 

“Could we create something that would point girls to real heroes, real women who historically were used in some sort of a powerful way but it had nothing to do with their physical appearance and everything to do with their character?” Erin wondered. “Could we present those women in a way that would engage children, would entertain them, but the parents could use as a quality resource as they are guiding their kids toward this character that they want them to develop?”

She had the answer to all those questions.

Initially, the Weidemanns saw it as a fun side project. But, the more time went on, the more she and Brent realized it could be something bigger and they really had the opportunity to help girls. Brent left a marketing position in 2015 to focus on "Bible Belles" full time. A year later, Erin Weidemann left her job as a teacher to do the same.

Brent serves as the “COO,” while Erin does the speaking and writing. Several things separate the work that the Weidemanns do from others in the field. Everything is high quality. Instead of books that were 6 by 9 inches, they made them a full 8 and a 1/2 by 11. The paper they use is thicker than most, with the books having a yearbook feel to them. And they hired a former Disney animator to illustrate their series. 

“I really wanted to create an incredibly high-quality product,” said Brent. “That is the driving component for me. We get feedback all the time from moms and girls about how much they love it and how meaningful it is. We also want this tool for our daughter, so that’s a selfish reason as well.”

The family keeps busy with business travel and speaking engagements. Despite the craziness, they have a family rule of not working on Saturdays. 

Even with the hectic schedule, they find time to get back to Penn State at least once a year for a football game. Penn State holds a special place in their hearts. Brent’s dad, Craig Weidemann, is the former Penn State vice president of outreach and vice provost for online education.

Without Penn State and that viewing party, the two probably wouldn’t have met. Even their engagement story includes the help of the Nittany Lion. 

This year, the Weidemanns returned back to campus multiple times. In June, Erin spoke at the Coaches vs. Cancer golf tournament. In November, she was a keynote speaker during Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week. She talked about the challenges of starting and running a business, and being able to persevere. 

While the two keep busy, Erin is always thankful for the time she has, and the opportunity to help people in the process. 

“We don’t know how much time we have. When I got sick, I thought my time was over,” she said. “Time is always something that’s on my mind. I try to live in the moment because we aren’t promised a future. If we woke up today, it means God has got work for us to do, so we’re going to do that work with whatever time we have.” 

Last Updated January 08, 2018