Engineering student, cancer survivor among this year's THON dancers

Compared to 30 days of radiation treatment, staying on her feet for 46 hours may feel like a walk in the park for Meghan Trahey.

A civil engineering student and member of the Society of Women Engineers (SWE), Trahey was diagnosed with medulloblastoma -- pediatric brain cancer -- in October 2008. After nearly three years in remission, she comes full circle as a dancer in the Penn State Interfraternal Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (THON) this weekend.

Among 15,000 student volunteers, Trahey is one of about 700 students designated as THON dancers, meaning they will stay awake and on their feet for the entirety of the 46-hour annual event in the Bryce Jordan Center.

All funds raised for THON benefit the Four Diamonds Fund, an organization that provides financial and emotional support to families that have children with cancer. The fund is based at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital in the Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. THON efforts have raised nearly $69 million for the fund since 1977, and $7.8 million just last year.

But despite its impact and rich history, THON is not recognized by everyone outside of Penn State. This included Trahey until four years ago, when her older sister danced in THON 2007.

"This is when I learned about THON -- at the time, I had no idea what she was talking about," Trahey said.

Although she was finishing a 30-day bout of radiation, Trahey and her family visited her sister that weekend at THON. It didn't take long for her interest to grow. Eager to learn more, she got involved as soon as she started her first year at Penn State. It wasn't long before she fell in love with the cause, she said.

"My take is that these children deserve the love and support. They have no idea why they are sick or why they are not allowed to play with their friends when they are neutropenic -- having a low white blood cell count," she explained.

Although she has been involved with THON through several organizations, including SWE, Trahey didn't always consider facing the physical challenge of being a dancer during THON weekend. But this past summer, she became more confident about staying on her feet for two days.

"I wasn't worried about getting sick or not being able to be as athletic as I once was. I suddenly had more belief in myself due to the encouragement of the people closest to me and a new self-hope," Trahey said . She asked her sister, who had danced in THON, what she thought about it.

"She told me that my dancing was what everyone was waiting for," Trahey said. "I knew right then that THON was my destination."

Trahey says she is proud to represent SWE as a dancer this year, and she's not alone. SWE is just one engineering group that participates in THON each year. The American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) joins SWE with its efforts, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE) volunteers time, as well.

Trahey will join three other dancers representing both SWE and ASME on the floor, including Keri Wolfe, a junior in chemical engineering; Meghan Fisher, a junior in mechanical engineering; and Mike Cymerman, a junior in mechanical engineering.

SHPE has two dancers this year, including industrial engineering senior Katie Tice and civil engineering senior Christian Parra.

Other engineering students dancing in THON through various organizations include Alessa Makuch, Brittany Jennings, Natalie Gennaro, Vicki Kramer and Kristina Kesack.

Juggling demanding engineering course loads with a completely occupied weekend will be challenging for these students, but they all have similar plans to work ahead as much as possible before this weekend.

"I'm a little nervous about managing my engineering coursework along with dancing, but I think if I begin to prepare early enough and try to work ahead as much as possible, I'll be fine," Wolfe said. "The worst part is that I have two exams on the morning of THON."

Wolfe, along with the other dancers, has been eating healthier, exercising and avoiding caffeine to prepare for the weekend. But some are still worried about making it to classes and meetings the Monday after THON.

"Back in freshman year, I used to be able to pull all-nighters without a problem," Tice explained. "Now that I'm a super senior, it's considerably more difficult for my body to stay awake all night and still be functional the following day ... so 46-plus hours straight should be interesting."

Tice says she knows she could potentially fall behind in her studies because she's dancing in THON, but she's OK with it.

"I know that my participation in THON is making a difference in the life of a child, and to me, that's definitely worth the sacrifice," she said.

The engineering dancers haven’t forgotten the reason behind the cause -- it's for the kids. And Trahey holds a special empathy with the THON children, even though her experience was different, beginning as a teenager.

"At the age of 16, I could understand my diagnosis and I could play a large role in fighting this disease," she explained. "These children just want to play and live and goof around like we all did when we were toddlers and kindergartners. Instead, they were hooked up to their IVs with innocent smiles on their faces."

This is motivation enough for Trahey.

"I know that it is going to be extremely challenging," she said, "but with the love and support of all of the people around me and the motivation of the families and children, I feel like there is nothing I cannot do."

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Last Updated February 15, 2011