By Mara Kern and Jessica Tully
There wasn’t a dry eye in the Bryce Jordan Center as Four Diamonds families shared personal stories of their children’s battles with cancer. THON Family Hour proves year-after-year to be the most emotional hour of the 46 that dancers spend standing. Ask any person at the BJC and they’ll tell you that listening to the stories of each family’s struggles and devastating losses will put an exhausting weekend on your feet into perspective.
After a few words of encouragement from head coach James Franklin, we heard from the Ashley Randolph family. Ashley’s mother, Jennifer, told the BJC about getting a phone call last year from Ashley, then a sophomore at Penn State. She told her mother she thought she pulled a muscle in her back because she was in pain. Unfortunately, it wasn’t just a pulled muscle.
A few tests concluded Ashley had a tumor the size of a golf ball at the top of her lung. The family went to Hershey Medical Center because they heard great things about the hospital. When they were told Ashley had Stage 2 lung cancer, Jennifer’s heart broke as she though of the $16,000 hospital bill she could not afford.
Ashley qualified for the Four Diamonds Fund and was able to get the treatment she needed. The current Penn State junior started to tear up as she said there has been no evidence of the disease for the past 8 months. She said her experience with THON, as a Rules & Regulations committee member, sorority donor, and THON child, has been nothing short of “inspiring.”
“This celebration is not just for the THON kids […] this celebration is about all of you guys and all you do,” Jennifer said. “If there were more schools like this, I can’t imagine how far we’d be in the fight against cancer.”
The Gavin Howe family was up next, bringing tears and inspiration with them. Gavin’s mother, Cindy, spoke about their journey that began 16 months ago when Gavin turned six and began kindergarten. Cindy took Gavin to his pediatrician twice during the month of September because he had enlarged lymphnodes, but was told that everything looked normal. One month later, on October 1, 2012, Gavin returned to the doctor, who ordered further testing. The Howe family was sent to the Hershey Medical Center.
Two days later, the doctor confirmed to the Howes that Gavin was diagnosed with t-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia. Cindy described the shock as indescribable.
“I have never felt so helpless,” she said. “I wanted to scream, to run away, but I was sitting beside my baby, and I was determined to be strong.”
Gavin began chemotherapy the very next day. Cindy spoke about how the knowledge that the staff at Hershey Medical Center had helped explain to their two other children, Jacoby and Zoey, Gavin’s diagnosis in terms that the kids could understand. A few months later, with their first THON rapidly approaching, Gavin was close to remission but not quite there. Gavin fell into a high-risk category that required aggressive treatments and would leave the family unsure of whether they would be able to attend their first THON weekend. After receiving initial results the Friday of THON, Gavin was still not able to attend THON due to the toxicity of his treatments.
The next day, several THON volunteers traveled to Hershey Medical Center to spend time with families who were unable to make it to THON weekend. It was during this time that the Howes were informed that they would indeed be able to attend THON 2013, an event that Cindy described as life-changing.
Cindy spoke about how one day she hoped that the good would outshine the bad memories. The Howe family wrapped up the speech by thanking Penn State, adding, “We love you now and will love you forever.”
Next up was a short appearance from the co-founder of the Four Diamonds Fund, Charles Millard, along with his daughter Stacia Bird.
“It is a pleasure to share the the stage with 350 families, and if the energy in this room could be captured, there is a cure someplace,” Millard said.
Millard also spoke about how it is harder for him to attend THON each year, referencing how he suffered from a stroke in September, which he opened up about earlier in the weekend.
“It is getting more difficult for me to be here, but I am going to try next year,” Millard said. “It is a thrill to be here, and I cherish it so much. I wouldn’t know what to do without it.”
The Xander Beltz Family
Dava Beltz brought her infectious enthusiasm to the BJC as she talked about her 7-year-old son, Xander. But before even telling her family’s story, she challenged THON-ers to always ask themselves how and why they are redefining the possibilities.
The Beltz family’s life was changed forever 5 years, 3 months, and 22 days ago. Dava’s son was given a death wish at the age of 18 months — the doctors told them Xander had leukemia.
“At this point, Dave and I only knew one thing: Our son had cancer,” Dava said. “I was overwhelmed already, and I still didn’t know what kind of leukemia my baby had. When we finally learned, we found he had a 50 percent chance of suriving.”
Dava and Dave had to make every sacrifice imaginable for their son, even sending their healthy daughter to live with her grandparents. Their hope had begun to dwindle until they began to try every day to see the good in each situation. It was then that the parents started to realize that people go out of their way to help them. As an example, Dava shared a story of a bartender who would not take their money because he overheard them talking about their son with leukemia.
“I was so touched by these blessings,” Dava said. “My faith in humanity was restored.”
Dava said their family has had bumps and bruises along the way, each serving as a scar for them to remember. This is their family’s sixth THON, each weekend being one of Xander’s favorites of the year.
In 57 days, Xander will earn a cape for being 5-years treatment free. He’s currently in the 1st grade where he plays Little League baseball and volunteers for the Ronald McDonald House. Dava she said she hope his story teaches others to never give up.
“This fund thrives because of you,” Dava said. “And every family who has benefited from the fund cannot thank you all or Sir Millard enough.”
The Eli Sidler Family
The last family to speak during Family Hour was the Eli Sidler family. This speech proved to be one of the most emotionally-heavy of the hour. Eli’s parents, Bret and Susan talked about how several years ago, their son Eli stood on stage and told his own story, but he is no longer able to do that. They wanted to try to tell his story without them.
Susan spoke of how Eli was full of life and loved the things most boys his age did: video games, exploring, and hanging out with his friends. With a smile, she remembered how he always woke up with a grin on his face.
In early 2004, Eli began to have agonizing pain but after several visits to a local doctor, the Sidlers were told that the problems were minor. Then, in September of 2004, during a visit to the ER, Eli was given an MRI. When the Sidlers received the results, they showed a mass growing in his spine. Eli was diagnosed with Ewing Sarcoma, a rare form of cancer.
The cancer was localized in his spine meaning Eli had a 70 percent chance of survival. After going to pick up Eli’s first prescription, which had a hefty bill of $2,700, the Sidlers realized that they were now a Four Diamonds Family, meaning that the cost of all prescriptions from then on out would be covered.
After multiple relapses, more than 30 cat scans, 17 MRIs and, 3 PET scans, Eli eventually passed away at the age of 16, but not before having his surgeon tell the tumor that was removed on Valentine’s Day to “have a happy Valentine’s Day, you SOB.”
Eli’s father Bret spoke about the gifts that had been given because of their journey. First and foremost, they were given 16 years with their son. There was also the gift of not having to worry about the financial repercussions of Eli’s cancer, even when his bills went over their $2 million insurance limit. They were also given the gift of being paired with Penn State’s club field hockey team, which led to the last gift of hundreds, if not thousands, carrying the memory of their son in their hearts.