Alumni continue fight against cancer

by Jessica Banasiak
Throughout high school, many students are involved in the fight against cancer through local organizations such as SMAC, the Student Movement Against Cancer. With the spring Relay for Life open to all students, it is easy to participate in an event that supports the cause.
For many graduates, commitment to supporting cancer research increases at the college level. THON, an activity at The Pennsylvania State University, exemplifies the enormous dedication required of college students who want to support pediatric-cancer research.
THON is the largest student-run philanthropy in the world. Thousands of students take part in a year’s worth of planning and fundraising that culminates in a 46-hour dance-a-thon each February. This year, Penn State students raised $10.68 million, a new record. Students solicit donations both on campus and in their hometowns. THON participants also sponsor a family coping with pediatric cancer. In doing so, students are able to interact with  children and their families who are affected by cancer every day.
In order to raise such funds, students must commit much of their time to the cause. “We take four weekends out of the school year to travel anywhere along the East Coast to can [collect donations in canisters] for a whole weekend. Most clubs and organizations participate,” said Annie Rubin, class of 2011, a Penn State freshman.
Despite the time commitment required, the Scotch Plains-Fanwood alumni involved in THON agreed that participation and enthusiasm for the event were greater than at the high school level. Cassie Zito, class of 2010, took part in the Relay for Life every year during high school and described the heightened excitement of THON: “When you look into the stands, they are packed with students from clubs, frats and sororities, all cheering and dancing,” said Zito. “I remember walking in for the first time as a dancer and being greeted by cheers of students that filled the entire basketball arena.” Zito was one of the 700 dancers who cannot sit or sleep for the 46 hours of the dance-a-thon.
THON participants’ connection to the cancer patients who benefit from the fundraiser makes the event personal. Julia Ross, class of 2010,  a sophomore at Penn State, cites this as the greatest difference between Relay and THON. “SMAC is also an amazing club that does wonderful things to help raise money and awareness for people with cancer, but THON has impacted me in a way SMAC never did,” she said. “When you see children suffering from such a terrible disease firsthand, it changes your life. And that is what THON has done for me; it has changed my life. I have seen how real cancer is and how it can destroy a family’s life. But THON is all about celebrating survival and hoping that together, one day we will find a cure.”
THON has inspired PSU students to continue their involvement after  graduation. Katherine Paseka, class of 2006, is a graduate student in mental health counseling at Penn State. “I work at a trauma-based mental health clinic where individuals often seek treatment to help work through the grief associated with the effects of cancer,” said Paseka, who still takes part in THON. “I can imagine that I will always be working with individuals who are impacted by cancer.”