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Pediatric Cancer Survivor Hits The THON Floor As First-Time Dancer

For Nathan Smelser, what started as a migraine in seventh grade turned out to be one of a family’s worst nightmares: childhood cancer. After briefly being brushed off by one doctor, Smelser and his family returned to a doctor in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, their hometown.

They were sent to the nearby Hershey Medical Center for further scans, where he learned that he had a mass the size of a golf ball sitting between his skull and his brain.

Following surgery and a biopsy, the diagnosis came in: Ewing’s sarcoma. This was strange, considering Ewing’s sarcoma usually begins in the bone and spreads from there. But the doctors began radiation treatment right away, which left Smelser with burns on his chest and immense pain with swallowing.

Over the next year, he endured 34 rounds of chemotherapy, which put his cancer into remission, where it has remained for the past five and a half years, and hopefully forever.

Surprisingly, though, he had never attended a THON event until after he was finished with his treatment. Smelser did have an adopted family through Penn State, Engineering House, who he occasionally met up with, but the Smelsers were just never hugely involved with THON.

Smelser said that he did attend his high school’s Mini-THON, but only from a spectator’s point of view. In his senior year, he participated in THON Factor — like The X Factor, but THON themed.

After that, he realized that he had a lot of fun and should have been more involved in his school’s Mini-THON. But by then, it was too late.

When he headed to Penn College for a bachelor’s degree in aviation maintenance technologies, Smelser scanned the list of organizations on campus that he could join. When he noticed Penn College Benefitting THON on the list, he immediately emailed them and got to know the president at the time.

Since the club was so small, the previous president offered him the top position for the following year the very first time that they spoke in person. Smelser participated in the club throughout his freshman year, which culminated in his first trip to THON in 2022.

After experiencing the weekend, Smelser immediately knew that he wanted to dance in the future. So when it came time to select Penn College’s dancers for THON 2023, he pretty much didn’t even have to ask if he could be one of them.

“Everyone thought it was the most reasonable, since I was the president, and with my history. So I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m dancing.'”

Smelser said that it’s pretty difficult to do some of the typical fundraising efforts with such a small group of people. About two-thirds of their fundraising total this year came from online donations.

“Because the group is so small it’s hard to do big events. We had one big event where it was almost like a Mini-THON night, with a bunch of different events going on. We raised a little bit of money, but it’s just difficult getting something that looks really good with so few people.”

Despite these challenges, Smelser’s motivation and belief in his club are unwavering. He recognizes that many of the responsibilities fall on him, but he’s happy to take them on if it means that the club gets to continue for another year.

When thinking about if THON Weekend would be emotional for Smelser, he had to stop and think.

“Yes and no. I know for my family it 100% will be [emotional]. But for me, when they told me I had cancer, my reaction was like, ‘Okay.’ I wasn’t scared, it wasn’t like my world was ending. Even now, it’s crazy that I went through all that and I’m still alive,” he shared.

Smelser acknowledges that it might sound strange, but he is not necessarily resentful at the fact that he had cancer. It allows him to appreciate the little moments in life, as well as the relationships formed between his family and friends.

“I like who I am today, and I don’t know if I would like the person I would be today if I hadn’t had [cancer]. It’s an important part of who I am,” said Smelser.

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About the Author

Haylee Yocum

Haylee is a junior studying immunology and infectious disease. She is from Mifflintown, PA, a tiny town south of State College. She is a coffee addict, loves Taylor Swift, and can't wait to go to a concert again. Any questions can be directed to @hayleeq8 on Twitter or emailed to [email protected]

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