Ryan Clark is just one of the 703 dancers on the floor at THON 2017, but few in the Bryce Jordan Center share his commitment to the cause. Clark is both a dancer for Boulevard and a Finance Committee member, but the rarity of his story extends far beyond his dual responsibilities.
The junior grew up in a small town near King of Prussia, the type of town he described as one where “everybody knew everybody.” When he was in kindergarten, an eighth-grade student in his school was diagnosed with cancer.
“I was so young at the time so it was kind of hard for them to explain to me what cancer was and what effects it would have,” he said.
Around the same time, Clark began experiencing some strange symptoms as well. He remembers watching a Peanuts special about a little girl who was diagnosed with cancer and discovering some similarities between himself and the character.
“Prior to the character getting diagnosed, they talked about getting a lot of bruises randomly, and I remember leaning over to my friend and saying, ‘That’s weird, I get a lot of bruises, too,'” he said. “I didn’t really think anything of it, I was just a five-year-old kid running around and playing sports, I was bound to get bruises.”
By the beginning of March 2002, Clark was in and out of the doctor’s office with muscle pain so bad he couldn’t sleep. A few days before his sixth birthday, he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia — a type of bone marrow and blood cancer that affects the body’s white blood cells.
Clark spent the next few weeks in the hospital receiving treatments like bone marrow aspirations and spinal tap procedures. He went into remission a month later, but still underwent 39 months of chemotherapy and continued with oral medication.
Clark will be cancer-free for 15 years this March.
After his battle with leukemia, Clark chose to follow in his father’s footsteps and attend Penn State. He spent his first two years at the Altoona campus where he served as the finance chair for the campus’ THON organization. He hadn’t heard about THON before college, but it wasn’t long before he was travelling to State College for the event of the year with all his friends
“My freshman year at Altoona…I stayed about 42 hours. Last year, I was there all 46 hours with my Altoona org up in the stands. One of my best friends was dancing so I got to come down and see him a lot, which was awesome. We both fueled each other.”
In his first year at the University Park campus, Clark joined Boulevard and was chosen to dance. He said THON is the perfect fit for him.
“There is nothing more perfect for me where I felt more at home — it’s Penn State, it’s fighting pediatric cancer. That’s right up my alley,” he said. “Just right from the start, it was just the perfect fit for me.”
Above all, Clark believes his journey with cancer has shaped him as a person and prepared him to help the Four Diamonds children dancing on the floor around him.
“Going through the stuff I had to go through, it just puts a lot of perspective on things and how fortunate you are,” Clark said. “Especially now, seeing all these kids going through what they’re going through, I can relate to them I try to fuel off of that and talk with their families about things they’re scared about and might not know about.”
As he walked into the BJC as a dancer for the first time, Clark was unafraid to show his emotions and share his experiences with others.
“I want to prove to this kids that what they’re going through isn’t going to define them,” he said. “Right now, it might physically make them feel weak, but in the long run, they’re going to be stronger as a person and going to learn a lot from their experience.”
Clark’s advice for anyone who wants to get involved in THON like he did two years is simple: Do it. He knows how much THON affects the lives of everyone involved.
“This really, really makes a big impact. If it wasn’t for the THON and the people supporting this cause, I would not be here today. That’s not like an ‘oh, maybe not,’ it’s absolutely true,” he said. “I’ve seen what [cancer]does to families first hand, and knowing that you have that financial burden off of you and you have 20,000 studets here that have your back, that’s really something special.”