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THON 2023’s Family Hour Reminds Us Why We THON

On Sunday, THON 2023’s Family Hour began with a speech from Stacia Bird, the daughter of Four Diamonds co-founder Charles Millard. Bird spoke on behalf of her mother, and also her father, who died in 2021 at the age of 93.

“Though fatigue can set in, we continue to fight the battle together until one day, we can dance together in celebration of a cure,” she said. “We say thank you for all your perseverance, fortitude, sacrifices, and your love.”

Following her speech, all the Four Diamonds families were introduced in the family procession.

The Jesse King family shared its story first. Jesse’s mom spoke about Jesse’s journey. Jesse is a Penn State student on the club volleyball team and actually participated in virtual THON in 2021 before he was diagnosed.

Three weeks after THON, Jesse went home for a routine test and went into cardiac arrest in the doctor’s office. After the cardiac arrest, doctors found a tumor in his chest and diagnosed him with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. During his arrest, Jesse suffered from a brain injury due to a lack of oxygen and is still working to retrain it through therapy.

Both of Jesse’s parents are familiar with THON, as they are both alumni and his mother danced in 1986. Additionally, they’re active in fundraising for the Leukemia Lymphoma Society. They are no strangers to the Four Diamonds cause and are extremely grateful for all that the organization has supported them.

“When I look at Jesse and his journey, courage and strength are probably the best two of the four pillars [of Four Diamonds] to describe Jesse,” his mother said.

Two weeks ago, Jesse had a scan, and his family is pleased to share that he has no active cancer.

The next family to speak was the Gus Bomgardner family. Gus’s older sister, Georgia, started off their family’s speech with an adorable “We Are” chant.

Gus was diagnosed with an atypical teratoid/rhabdoid tumor, or AT/RT for short. Gus spent months in the ICU, battling this tumor and all the side effects that come with his cancer and treatment.

He spent 197 days in the hospital, went through 10 brain surgeries, 29 rounds of radiation, and was under anesthesia more than 60 times. But on February 4, 2022, Gus finished his treatment and was then declared tumor-free on December 26, 2022. When Gus’s mom, Greta, shared that win, the crowd erupted in cheers.

“That cheering means a lot to me as you celebrate him where he is today,” Greta said.

She also shared how impactful Four Diamonds is in helping cover the costs associated with cancer treatment. One day, Gus’s family was billed on accident for his fifth round of chemo, 48 days of inpatient care, and two brain surgeries. The bill was 26 pages long and cost over $649,000, a number the family would’ve had to pay if it wasn’t for Four Diamonds.

She also shared her gratitude for ATO and ZTA, who were paired with the Bomgardner family. She said that meeting Tucker Haas and learning about his journey with cancer and THON was inspiring.

“It gives me hope that Gus too will grow past this into a life of purpose. That cancer, while it will not shape, will help define,” she said.

Following Gus’s story, THON played this year’s “Where Are They Now?” video, which gives updates on Four Diamonds children who have won the battle against cancer.

The Jay Jacunski family shared their story next. Jay’s younger brother and THON alum, AJ, spoke about his brother and his journey with cancer.

Before Jay’s diagnosis, he was your average sophomore in high school — preparing for his driving test, playing football, and being all that a high schooler is. AJ described him as brave, loving, strong, and wise.

On April 27, 2010, Jay was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma, and his life was turned completely around. On October 22, Jay could only move half of his face because the cancer moved to his brain fluid. On his dad’s birthday, November 19, Jay’s lung collapsed, and he had to be put on a ventilator. The hardest part for the Jacunski family was that all they could do was watch Jay’s struggle and offer their support.

AJ recounted the time when he was standing next to Jay’s bed in the ICU. He grabbed Jay’s hand and told him that he loved him. The only response he got back was a spike in Jay’s heart rate.

On December 18, 2010, Jay lost his fight with cancer.

“There’s a dark and sad reality of cancer that is not always seen…the sad and very real truth that not everyone will make it through,” AJ said.

AJ requested that the main takeaway everyone has from his speech is to think of the quote, “When we do things for ourselves, they die with us. When we do things for humanity, they live on forever.”

To wrap up the emotional Family Hour, the “Celebration Of Life” video was played to honor the Four Diamonds children who lost their lives in the battle with cancer. The entire Bryce Jordan Center linked arms, swayed together, and celebrated those lives. After the video, there was a performance of “Angels Among Us,” and the Singing Lions performed “Dancing in the Sky” with a portion of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”

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About the Author

Mackenna Yount

Mackenna is a junior food science major from Manitou Springs, Colorado, and is one of Onward State's associate editors. She loves food, is addicted to coffee, and can give you random facts or bad jokes that you didn't ask for. Ask her to bake gluten-free goodies so she has an excuse to try out new cupcake flavors. Mackenna can be contacted via Twitter @mackennayount (especially if you want to show off your best dad jokes) or you can shoot her an email at [email protected].

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