Some 30,000 students, alumni, donors, and faculty members of Pennsylvania State University piled into the Bryce Jordan Center at the end of February to participate in the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, known as THON. The year-long effort, which raises funds and awareness to battle pediatric cancer, all boils down to this 46-hour no-sitting, no-sleeping dance marathon. Now in its 37th year, the event has raised close to $70 million for the cause to date.
“We are the largest student organization at Penn State and in the nation in terms of what we do, the number of volunteers, and the money that we raise,” said THON's 2010 Chair, Caitlin Zankowski, a senior industrial engineering major at Penn State.
This year, the efforts of approximately 12,000 student volunteers across the Pennsylvania commonwealth reaped just over $7.8 million for pediatric cancer, a $400,000 increase over last year, shutting down concerns about how the current economic climate might affect the fundraising effort.
“Everyone this year was worried about the economy, but it's never something we worry about,” said Ms. Zankowski.
“With THON, people are going to work as hard as we can no matter what is going on in the world. Was it a miracle that we raised that money? Absolutely, as it is every year. But no matter what the total is, whether it's $2 million or $8 million, that's still money going to pediatric cancer, which in our book is a success.”
Four Diamonds Fund
The sole beneficiary of THON is the Four Diamonds Fund, an organization started in 1972 by Charles and Irma Millard after the death of their son Christopher, who was diagnosed with cancer at age 11. Originally, the fund was started to help defray medical expenses for families with a child who was undergoing cancer treatment at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital, said Sara Firestone, Director of the fund.
“Because of fundraising success, primarily due to the dance marathon, the Four Diamonds Fund and THON partnered in 1977, and we've been able to stick to the founding purpose of covering those medical expenses that aren't covered by a family's insurance or other means, and then expand to support a medical team, our patients, and their families here at the children's hospital, and also pediatric cancer research.”
Last year, 96% of the funds raised through THON went directly to the Four Diamonds Fund, which accounts for two-thirds of the organization's funding overall. A part of those funds is designated for unique patient resources that are typically available only at larger children's hospitals, Ms. Firestone said.
“We have social workers who are supporting the Four Diamonds patients and families, music therapists, child life specialists, a clinical psychologist, a clinical nutritionist, and then oncology nurses and oncology nurse specialists who provide a higher level of care, serving as an intermediary between the physicians and patients, physicians, and then data managers for some of our research efforts as well.”
Approximately 1,500 families have benefited from the fund since its beginning in the early 1970s, Ms. Firestone said. This year, 240 families participated in THON.
Focus on Research
One of the most important aspects of THON's fundraising efforts is the research it supports, said David Ungar, MD, Vice Chair for Clinic Affairs in the Department of Pediatrics at Hershey Children's Hospital and Clinical Director of the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology there.
“We are active in a large number of cooperative group trials with institutions from across the country that Four Diamonds supports. In addition, we've done some institutional studies in our group here of different cancer therapies that Four Diamonds has supported as well,” said Dr. Ungar, who is also a member of the Four Diamond's Advisory Board.
An $8.5 million endowment established in 1999 currently supports two full-time researchers and their teams. Ken Lucas, MD, Director of Stem Cell Transplant at the Four Diamonds Pediatric Research Center at Penn State College of Medicine, is the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon Chair for Pediatric Research and Barbara A. Miller, MD, Division Chief, is the Christopher Millard Chair for Pediatric Research.
Dr. Lucas's lab focuses on the use of cellular immunotherapies to treat cancer, particularly with the use of stem cell transplants and vaccines, while Dr. Miller's research is based on proteins found in ion channels.
“As THON has grown and the Four Diamonds Fund has grown, being able to put more dollars towards research is very exciting,” said Dr. Ungar. “Everybody in pediatric cancer care understands that both basic and clinical research is how we improve what we do.”
Recruiting for Two New Endowments for Experimental Therapeutics
The fund is now actively recruiting for two newly established endowments for an experimental therapeutics program. The mission is to increase the cure rate and reduce the side effects of cancer for children, Ms. Firestone said.
“What they are going to do is promote and facilitate the development of new therapies. The goal is to identify new targets for drugs to treat different childhood malignancies and to do some clinical research studies to test those new drugs and experimental approaches,” she said.
Expansion of the experimental therapeutics program is very exciting for the future, agreed Dr. Ungar, who noted that the majority of the researchers in his division participate in THON. He himself has participated annually since joining Penn State in 1993.
“When I joined the Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology, I got to see first-hand the support that the Four Diamonds Fund provides, and once you see that and realize the ties that the Penn State dance marathon and the students who are a part of that have and the support that they provide, to attend the dance marathon and be a part of that experience is a very small way to be able to show our appreciation for all they provide.”
A Year-Round Effort
Although THON's most exciting time of the year is the weekend of the dance marathon, efforts are under way year-round to make the fundraising a success, Ms. Zankowski said.
“In the fall we have a 5k run, which was the biggest yet this year—we had nearly 5,000 participants. We also have a carnival for the families and student organizations in November, and in January we have an event called The Road to THON Celebration. It's a formal dinner where we give out awards and have people speak about pediatric cancer and their involvement in THON.”
Fourteen different committees also participate in promotional events throughout the community to spread the word about THON and rally the support of individual donors.
“Individual gifts last year made up for 87% of the total funds,” said Ms. Zankowski. “That support is phenomenal.”
While THON never establishes a goal in terms of the amount of funds that it hopes to raise, through its collaboration with the Four Diamonds Fund, the clear focus for the future is research, said Ms. Firestone.
“We have a tagline of ‘conquering childhood cancer’ and we feel we're doing an outstanding job of providing the emotional and financial support for the families who benefit from the Four Diamonds Fund, but I think everyone would like to see us support research to truly get to that point—whatever that may be in terms of conquering childhood cancer.”