Coming Full Circle

Penn State student and pediatric cancer survivor will oversee events and operations leading up to and during this year’s THON weekend, Feb. 16 – 18 at the Bryce Jordan Center.

Four years ago, as a Penn State freshman, Brady Lucas made a bold decision; a choice that turned into an annual statement. Each year, Lucas and other supporters of the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, or THON, shave their heads in solidarity with childhood cancer patients who may have lost their hair as a result of treatment.

The No Hair Don’t Care event is one of a slew of activities held throughout the year, culminating with the 46-hour dance marathon. Collectively, the events raise millions annually for Four Diamonds, whose mission is to conquer childhood cancer by assisting children and their families treated at Penn State Children’s Hospital through superior care, comprehensive support, and innovative research.

“We shave our heads because we want these children to know they’re not alone in the fight,” Lucas said.

Over the past year, Lucas served as special events director for THON 2018, overseeing events, including No Hair Don’t Care. Special events aim to engage the campus and community throughout the year, and provide opportunities for Four Diamonds families to participate in alternative THON activities, as not every Four Diamonds child can participate in THON weekend.

“Cancer isn’t just a weekend in February. And neither is THON.”

But Lucas is more than an administrative leader of THON, the world’s largest student-run philanthropy. Each year, when Lucas has his head shaved, he is not only symbolically supporting children battling cancer, he is also empathizing with them as a childhood cancer survivor.

In 2005, and then again in 2010, Lucas was diagnosed with childhood Leukemia. His family became a Four Diamonds family—receiving care at Penn State Children’s Hospital and benefitting from the support of Four Diamonds, which has helped nearly 4,000 children and families through care and research since 1972. He attended THON as a child. Ultimately, he was able to complete treatments and reach remission. He is set to graduate in May.

“Cancer isn’t just a weekend in February. And neither is THON.” - Brady Lucas

Brady Lucas as a young boy with Penn State Football player, Sean Lee.

Brady Lucas's first THON

Pictured as a child, Brady Lucas, seated, lifts weights with former Penn State football player Sean Lee during a past Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON). Lucas, a childhood cancer survivor, first became involved with THON as a Four Diamonds child. Today, Lucas is healthy and an advocate for childhood cancer patients. He is special events director of THON 2018. 

Image: Brady Lucas

Part of what drives Lucas’s involvement in THON is the desire to support and aid in sustaining an organization that helped save his life, and through that, show other children and families there is hope.

During his freshman year, he was a dancer relations committee member for THON, and then as a sophomore, Lucas danced in THON while also serving as a special events committee member.

The summer before his junior year he lost his friend, Maddie, to cancer. Maddie, who was a student at Penn State York, had always wanted to be a dancer relations captain for THON.

Lucas knew immediately which job he had to seek out.

“I wanted to do everything I could to ensure Maddie’s dreams were carried out,” Lucas said.

“I applied to be a dancer relations captain and luckily I got it,” he said. “I was very blessed to have 33 committee members that were absolutely incredible. And because part of my role was connecting with and supporting Commonwealth campuses, I also got to see a whole new side of THON I hadn’t seen before.”

Lucas said each Commonwealth campus involved in THON carried out unique and successful events.

“It was really eye opening for me, to interact with these dancers and hear their stories of why they got involved with THON,” Lucas said.

After his junior year, Lucas started thinking about what he wanted to do for THON during his final year at Penn State.

“I really thought about what I wanted to add to my THON career and how I could make the biggest impact,” he said.  “I knew being on the executive committee was a huge time commitment. But I was willing to make that time commitment because I knew how many lives we could touch through these roles.”

Lucas applied, and was selected, to be the special events director on the executive committee.

“I think it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me,” Lucas said. “I had seen the year-long effort that goes into THON and now I could be a bigger part of it.”

As special events director, Lucas oversees 18 captains and 128 committee members. Each committee is responsible for a different aspect of pre-THON and THON, from planning athletic fundraising events to parking logistics and weekend-of support.

Brady Lucas

Brady Lucas

Brady Lucas is a biobehavioral health major in the College of Health and Human Development. He is co-founder of the Brady C. Lucas Golf Outing, an annual golf tournament that raises money for Four Diamonds. To date, the charity has raised more than $211,000 in nine years. 

Image: Kevin Sliman

“In the end, THON is for the families. We have to make sure we are keeping the families in mind for every decision we make."

He uses his leadership role to help student volunteers understand the impact they can make by participating.

“In the end, THON is for the families. We have to make sure we are keeping the families in mind for every decision we make,” Lucas said.

“Students may get involved with THON for many different reasons. For some, they join as freshmen because their friends are doing it; it’s a staple at Penn State,” he added.

Part of his work is to help these students understand the meaning behind THON, and how its overall goal is to cure childhood cancer.

Four Diamonds families send in videos and letters, which are shown or read at weekly committee meetings. Through this, students become invested in these children and families, and understand what THON is really about.

“Once students begin coming to committee meetings and events, and connect with other THON volunteers, they begin to really understand the impact they can make. And then we hope they stay involved because of that impact,” he said.

Although Lucas knew the work he was doing was important, he said it wasn’t until he was reaching out to the doctors and nurses who once treated him, inviting them to THON, that his involvement truly resonated for him.

“I was the one emailing them inviting them to attend THON,” Lucas said. “I used to be their patient.”

As a cancer survivor in his current role, it’s meaningful for Lucas to show his doctors, nurses and hospital staff that their work is important, and that they are making a difference. And he’s proof of it.

“I went from a being sick child walking into the clinic, to a leader in this organization that saved my life,” he said.

When working with Four Diamonds families, Lucas doesn’t usually mention that he’s a cancer survivor, unless it’s brought up. When it is, he is able to connect with families on a different level, because not only has he been through cancer treatment, but he was also a Four Diamonds child, one who attended THON.

Connecting with families is something Lucas thrives on, and is a gift he wants to utilize in his career.

When Lucas was deciding on a major, he was set on medical school, aspiring to help children with cancer through work as a pediatric oncologist. But through his major, Biobehavioral Health, minor in Health Policy and Administration, and involvement with THON, Lucas learned he can support children with cancer and their families in other ways.

“As I’ve grown while planning these events. I’ve seen a different side of how I can help families and children,” he said. “I don’t have to be in a direct patient care position, like a doctor, to make a difference. I’ve really gotten to enjoy working behind the scenes.”

Lucas said he would like to go into event planning for a pediatric cancer charity or corporate philanthropy, or possibly manage a non-profit organization. His dream is to be a CEO of a children’s hospital.

“Through my studies and involvement with THON, I’ve been working on being approachable to different kinds of people, from children to college students to alumni across the country. THON has helped me learn how to talk to families in tough situations. I’d like to use that in my career someday,” he said.

After graduation, Lucas plans to continue his support for THON.

“No matter where I end up living, I want to get involved with alumni engagement committees and continue to spread the mission of THON in my community,” he said.

But first, there’s THON 2018.

What exactly will Lucas be doing during those 46 hours?

He’ll be overseeing two hair donations captains to ensure things go smoothly for the 40 people who plan to donate their hair on stage. He will also help out the parking and logistics committees, making sure parking lots are correctly staffed, and that people are parking in correct locations. He will also be assisting the rules and regulations committees, making sure staffing and security are in place.

Lucas also imagines he’ll be transitioning committees from different activities, and helping out the dancer relations committee to make sure all dancers are properly taken care of and fed.

“As things come up, I’ll be there,” he said. “I’ll be on standby, on-call. My priority will be to ensure we have the best THON weekend as possible for the families and all spectators.”

THON, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, will run Feb. 16 – 18 at the Bryce Jordan Center on University Park campus. For more information visit thon.org.