Isabella Messina, 12, of State College, begged her parents, Pat and Renee Messina, to let her stay home from school Friday so she could get ready for the IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
Pat Messina said he wouldn’t give in completely, but he allowed his daughter to take a half-day so she could prepare for her favorite event of the year.
“I really wanted to pick out what I was going to wear,” said Isabella, who was clad in flourescent colors, a tutu and knee-high socks that were embroidered with “FTK,” which stands for “For the Kids.”
The Messinas are a Four Diamonds family, and this is Isabella’s first year participating in Thon cancer-free.
Isabella, a Park Forest Middle School seventh-grader, was diagnosed with leukemia in March 2003 at only 20 months of age, Renee Messina said.
She underwent chemotherapy and other treatments, was in remission and then relapsed while being treated at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. Her brother, Jack, who is now 8, donated bone marrow to her when he was just 2.
Now, Messina said, the doctors tell her that Isabella is “considered cured.”
“You go through so many emotions that linger with you,” Messina said. “We were first overwhelmed and never thought it was possible when we first found out about her cancer. Now, even 11 years later, the emotions are still there, but in different ways.”
When Isabella was first diagnosed, she was immediately introduced to the Four Diamonds Fund, Messina said.
“There are a group of nurses and hospital staff that just give you information on it,” she said. “We did some research and found it was in our best interest. I can’t imagine why anyone who is or was in our situation wouldn’t take advantage of something that has the power to help in so many different ways. I just can’t grasp it.”
Messina said that Thon and the Four Diamonds Fund, and all who are involved, have become a second family. For that, Messina said, it’s now her turn to give back.
“We’re beyond the financial support,” Messina said. “At this point, we’ve been so far immersed in the camaraderie of the event, and find people and families who completely understand what you’re going through. You can’t find that understanding in other places.”
For the first time this year, Messina was a runner with The Hope Express, on Team Hope.
The Hope Express is a 135-mile overnight run from Penn State Hershey Medical Center to the Bryce Jordan Center that bridges the gap between the hospital and those dancing in Thon. Essentially, it helps raise money for the Four Diamonds Fund and raises awareness of pediatric cancer.
Messina’s team left on Thursday night and arrived in State College by late Friday afternoon; each participant took turns running 3 miles at a time.
“We had this story to be told and got so much support for it, and there is no better way to give thanks for the support than find a way to give back,” Messina said.
Messina began to train in the fall by working on her endurance.
“I wasn’t a runner and there were so many times you just want to give up and think you can’t do it, but all the hard work is worth it. I’d run for a minute then walk for a minute, and it gets so tiring,” said Messina, who is an athletic trainer for the Penn State women’s field hockey and lacrosse teams. “In the process, you meet new families and share experiences. My role was to help bring something different to the team.”
Messina said she has learned in the past decade to not take things for granted.
“We have had great news recently with Isabella, but you participate in this run and this event, and find that there is still healing that continues,” Messina said. “We now find new and different ways to give back and enjoy life, because something like this changes you.”
Last year, Isabella participated in Park Forest Middle School’s Mini-Thon. This year, both State College Area middle schools are joining forces to create a larger Mini-Thon.
“These are my favorite things because I can raise money and be a part of something that changes people’s lives,” Isabella said.