Three men never looked so good in tutus.
Vinny Carrano, Brady Lucas and Colin Hayes don the fluffy skirts, knee-high, tie-dye socks and fanny packs, all staples of Thon, every year at the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.
They share a commonality that draws them to the Bryce Jordan Center every year, an unrelenting need to battle pediatric cancer.
Lucas and Hayes are not considered cancer-free yet, and Carrano’s sister Lauren lost her life to the disease. They share their stories with anyone willing to listen.
“You have cancer”
They are the three words no one wants to hear. It’s the news no doctor wants to give. And Hayes plans to be on both sides of the conversation.
A Penn State junior, he works to become a pediatric oncologist.
“I definitely want to be in the clinical setting, to be able to prescribe protocol and to guide children and their families through tough times,” Hayes said. “I feel as though I’ve been given a second opportunity to live. I got excellent medical care that saved my life, so I feel it’s the right thing to dedicate myself to giving back through medicine.”
David Ungar, a former pediatric oncologist at Penn State Hershey, took a direct approach with a purposefully short-spoken Hayes on the day of his diagnosis. Unaware of the severity of his situation, Hayes wanted to leave Penn State Hershey to play in his last baseball game of his sophomore year.
“Dr. Ungar was very blunt about me having cancer,” Hayes said. “In retrospect, I appreciate that. It’s better than dragging it out.”
Hayes, who was 15 years old, dropped his head forward and stared at the floor. He doesn’t remember anything else Ungar said, which is why he researched Ewing’s sarcoma in the days after the diagnosis.
He can rattle off everything about the disease like he’d just crammed for an exam.
Hayes learned 3 in 1 million children are told they have Ewing’s sarcoma, a bone cancer categorized in two stages. Local Ewings sarcoma gave him a 70 percent chance of surviving for five years. Metastasized, the other stage of Ewings sarcoma, would have given him a 20 percent chance to live.
Cancer cannot hold me back and stop me from doing what I want to do.
He wanted to fight cancer on his own. His mother, Sharon, who made him see the doctors that led to the diagnosis, decided they would become a Thon family.
“I was this sick, bald teenager going through treatments,” he said. “I understood Thon was Penn State students, and I thought they’d rather rally around a little kid. She thought it was a good idea, and it changed my life.”
Four years later, Hayes processes hundreds of check donations as a Thon finance committee member. He is also a member of the Penn State Irish Society, the group appointed to support him in his fight against cancer.
Hayes, knowing someone else’s life could depend on it someday, also obsessively studies to become a doctor when he isn’t volunteering for Thon.
“Cancer cannot hold me back and stop me from doing what I want to do,” Hayes said.
He wouldn’t, however, mind being out of a job on one condition.
“(If we find a cure), that is something I won’t complain about,” Hayes said. “I can find something else to do, definitely.”
It was Lauren’s favorite place
Vinny Carrano didn’t know if he would go to college after joining the Marines in 2006, but his short-list added up to one school five years later.
“(2011) was crazy,” he said. “I got home from Afghanistan, re-entered the civilian world and started as a student at Penn State. I got into Thon and started sharing my big sister Lauren’s story. I saw the inspiration she gave people, and then I was chosen to dance in 2012.”
Lauren Carrano danced, played hoops and made friends with the big kids, especially her dancers, 17 years earlier at Thon in 1995. She wore a hat backwards, had on a Penn State basketball jersey about 10 sizes too big and rode on the shoulders of college students who had just met her.
Vinny Carrano called Thon her favorite place in the world.
Cancer won’t break us. It never will.
“The only shining light that came through when Lauren was diagnosed was Thon,” Vinny Carrano, who graduated from Penn State in 2015, said. “It was something we looked forward to in 1995. Lauren went into remission before that and was fully back to herself. She was a wild one. She was so witty with everyone. My parents saw a huge transition in her that weekend. It was like she was never sick.”
The little girl who befriended strangers in Penn State Hershey and played GI Joe with her little brother died a year later after the cancer relapsed.
Vinny Carrano danced in her memory for 46 hours at Thon 2012 and shared Lauren’s story with 15,000 people in an eight-minute speech. He was also inspired by Trey Davis, his Thon child.
A fixture at Thon, Vinny Carrano will celebrate their lives through Sunday. The 20-year anniversary of Lauren’s death, the final day of Thon is also the four-year anniversary of Trey’s remission.
“I remember the day she died so vividly, and that day doesn’t get any easier after 20 years” Carrano said. “But Trey is my shining star. That day is the anniversary of him being cancer free. Feb. 21 will always be a bittersweet day, but cancer won’t break us. It never will.”
Brady Lucas will dance
Brady Lucas didn’t know if there was a dry eye in the room, because he looked through his own tears.
A week before Thon, he spoke to 707 dancers in Penn State’s Multi-Sport Facility. The hundreds chosen to dance for 46 hours at Thon sat next to each other on the turf field while Lucas told his story.
“It was an emotional roller coaster,” he said. “It was the first time I cried during a speech, because it hit me that everything has gone full circle for me. I think at times I’ve been in denial that this is happening. It was like talking to 707 of my heroes.”
Lucas makes the number of Penn State students dancing at Thon 708, a dream he’s had since he was 8 years old, the same age he was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
He spent three years, from April 2005 to July 2008, battling the disease.
That was just his first bout with cancer.
“I don’t remember a day I wasn’t doing chemotherapy,” he said. “Then I went into remission. My life was supposed to get back to normal, but it never really did. There’s nothing normal about life after you’ve fought cancer. I realized after that there was no reason to try to be normal, so I try to stand out and be myself.”
Lucas is a burst of energy when he walks into the room.
Cancer can’t take away our happiness and joy.
Part of that, he said, is excitement for Thon. He also attributes it to a conscious decision to always smile.
“I didn’t want cancer to take over me, so I always smiled,” Lucas said. “I tried to use it to become a better person.”
The Penn State sophomore, whose goal is to work in pediatric care at Penn State Hershey, never seems down.
He even laughed at the irony of how he learned the cancer relapsed in 2010. Everything — room No. 7253, nurse and doctor — was the same as when he was diagnosed five years earlier.
“Cancer cannot take away my smiles or stop what we are doing for children,” he said. “Cancer can’t take away our happiness and joy.”
The bright side of his story, as he tells it, is that another child didn’t get cancer.
If he does dance the entire weekend, it will be no small feat. Cancer’s lingering effects on him include liver fibrosis, portal hypertension, esophageal varices and weak ankles, one that collapsed during chemotherapy.
His dad reminded him to wear his ankle braces, but Lucas didn’t sound worried.
“I can take the pain,” Lucas said. “I’ve taken the pain before.”