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Pandemic’s Restrictions Remind Us Who THON Is Truly For

This weekend, THON is back in person at the Bryce Jordan Center, largely thanks to a handful of regulations that make it possible amid an ongoing pandemic. Among those rules include mandated masking, (partly) required vaccinations, and constraints on potential attendees and spectators.

Throughout THON 2022, only Four Diamonds families whose children are not actively receiving treatment can visit the Bryce Jordan Center. Although case-by-case decisions can be approved by doctors, a good number of children and families will, once again, be limited to tuning in through a livestream online.

Despite the positive (and, perhaps, necessary) regulation, a large proportion of Four Diamonds families may be excluded from a true THON experience. Ultimately, this could end up inflicting more harm than good to both children and families.

As cancer patients persevere through treatments, they’re also battling a low white blood cell count that negatively impacts their ability to fight infections. Centers for Disease Control research suggests it can take weeks or even months for patients’ bodies to properly regenerate white blood cell counts. So, even patients who are now off of treatment could still be at risk.

On top of the ever-present COVID-19, something as simple as the common cold could wreak havoc on a child still trying to get their life back to normal after battling cancer. 

Keeping this in mind, it’s obvious that we won’t see the usual number of Four Diamonds families at the BJC during THON Weekend. So, without the kids who fuel the mission, does an in-person THON feel hollow?

Based on THON 2021, it’s evident that you don’t need an in-person event to raise large amounts of money. An entirely virtual dance marathon still produced a whopping $10.6 million fundraising total.

Regardless of the fundraising, THON’s mission — as every volunteer and fan would tell you — is solely “For The Kids”. However, that should mean all of the kids — not just the ones who are healthy enough to be there. 

By volunteering with THON for two years, I have had the privilege to learn about many families that the organization serves. Each family has a different story, but many children and parents say the same thing about the impact that THON has on them. All year, they look forward to THON Weekend since it provides a setting where they can set aside all of their other worries. At THON, kids can be kids while free of hospitals, chemotherapy, and illness. 

In 2022, while the world still halfheartedly battles a pandemic and getting back to normal feels less and less possible, THON is perhaps the closest thing to “normal” that some children and families can imagine. 

Now, though, some families will remain confined to their homes while playing THON’s livestream on their televisions, watching other happy faces instead — perhaps even familiar faces of their paired organizations or friends who line the floor and stands of the BJC. 

When a child looks to their parents and asks why they aren’t able to join the line dance, the fashion show, or meet the Nittany Lion, what are those parents supposed to say? “Because of your cancer?” That’s supposed to be the reason that they have the privilege to participate in THON in the first place.

As a pediatric cancer survivor myself, it may be strange to consider myself lucky. However, I had the fortune of a fairly short chemotherapy treatment period. Regardless, for those four months, my entire family and I were required to be extra careful to avoid any infection. For a whole summer (and a little while after), end-of-the-school year field trips and vacations were pretty much completely off the table for me.

Even though at the time I was old enough to understand that I needed to stay inside for my own safety, it didn’t make things any easier at all. I recall being endlessly frustrated and repeatedly thinking, “It’s just not fair.” 

Instead of giving these children a 46-hour reprieve, the choice to hold an in-person event amid a pandemic has given them yet another chance to say, “It’s just not fair” — a phrase that cancer patients and their families know all too well. 

The one good thing that has come out of such a terrible diagnosis has inexplicably been taken away from children who are still fighting, leaving some members of the THON community with one question: What is it all for?

All of this isn’t to suggest that it’s somehow THON’s fault that on-treatment children can’t visit the BJC this weekend. Hopefully, though, it can serve as a reminder for all to think about what this weekend is really about: the kids.

If you’re in the BJC this weekend or thinking about THON at all, make sure to send some extra thoughts to those families at home who are unable to join in on the festivities. One day, we’ll return to dance for a cure…together.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a 2024 graduate of Penn State with a degree in immunology and infectious disease. She relocated to Williamsport but will not be taking any questions about what’s next in her career. Haylee continues to be fueled by dangerous amounts of caffeine and dreams of smashing the patriarchy. Any questions or discussion about Taylor Swift’s best songs can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter if you must.

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