Graduating senior triumphs against all odds

University Park, Pa. -- When Jenna Larson arrived at Penn State as a freshman in summer 2005, she knew college would present new and exciting challenges. What she didn't know, however, was that she would face a uniquely difficult experience -- and come out on top four years later.

Larson completed summer session at University Park in 2005 and looked forward to the start of the fall semester. Things were going well until one day in early October, when she was walking to the library and stopped dead in her tracks. She had suffered chest pains for two and a half years, which had been diagnosed as symptoms of a heart condition. That day, however, the pain was different.

Larson called her mother, an attending registered nurse at Hershey Medical Center, who advised her to go to University Health Services. A chest X-ray revealed a large tumor wrapped around her trachea, causing the breathing trouble and chest pains. A few days later, Larson went home for additional tests at Hershey Medical Center. It was there that she discovered she had Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the immune system. The disease was considered curable, but she would have to begin treatment immediately.

Determined not to let cancer stand in the way of a normal college life, Larson continued her semester studying hotel, restaurant and institutional management at University Park, commuting to Hershey for chemotherapy once every two weeks. She chose to transfer to Penn State Harrisburg the following spring so the last few months of her treatment could be more convenient.

Throughout Larson's treatment process, her School of Hospitality Management academic adviser, Dave Rachau, was impressed by her drive. "Jenna took a full course load while receiving treatment, and never asked for any favors," he said. "She just isn't the type to let cancer, or anything else, get the best of her."

It was that February that Larson participated in her first Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon (known as THON), benefiting the Four Diamonds Fund. The fund facilitates treatment and research for pediatric cancer, and because she was still 18, Larson was adopted as a Four Diamonds child.

"I had been doing well with my treatment, but by the time THON came around, I'd lost my hair and I was losing my determination," Larson recalled. "THON was a major turning point for me because I met so many great people, and it was the first time I went anywhere public without a wig. It was a really amazing experience and it pulled me out of my slump."

Larson's mother said that while their family was fortunate enough not to need financial assistance from the Four Diamonds Fund, they still found a lot of reassurance within the organization. "THON made Jenna feel very comfortable, loved and supported," said Sylvia Larson. "It was a very emotional weekend, seeing all those families going through such difficult times."

Jenna Larson continued her fight and after six months of chemotherapy and one month of radiation, she was in remission and ready to return to University Park for the fall 2006 semester. Inspired by her experience with the Four Diamonds Fund, she applied for and received the position of Family Relations Captain for THON 2007.

Just as Larson's life was returning to "normal," tragedy hit that winter when her fiancé was killed in a car accident. "It was a really difficult time," she said, "and in retrospect, I probably should have taken some time off to recover." Her persistence won out, though, and she continued her studies and upheld her responsibilities as a captain for THON.

Sylvia Larson recalls her fear that her daughter would withdraw from life after all that she had endured, but was amazed at her strength. "She had made commitments and she was going to stick to them; that's what impressed me the most," said Sylvia Larson. "I'm so glad that she had THON to help her through. It gave her something to live for."

Jenna Larson agrees. "I found that my experience as a Four Diamonds kid really helped me interact with families because I could relate very personally to what they were going through." She added, "I saw lots of students focus solely on the kids, but I liked talking to the parents and siblings, too, because I know cancer affects everyone. I can also relate to what it's like to lose a loved one, so I knew more about how to talk to families that had lost children to cancer."

In addition to helping Four Diamonds families, Rachau recalls Larson's willingness to use her experience to aid fellow students. "I remember she said that if I ever heard of any other students that had been diagnosed, she'd be happy to talk to them," he said. "She had observed that some people with cancer are very private about it, but she was more than willing to open up about her ordeal if she thought it would help someone else."

Larson has served as a THON Family Relations Captain for the past three years and also volunteers as president of Colleges Against Cancer and co-chairperson of Relay For Life. A senior graduating this spring with a bachelor's degree in hotel, restaurant and institutional management, she plans to return to the Hershey area after graduation as a manager for Longhorn Steakhouse, and hopes to move to Colorado eventually. While she will be leaving Penn State, she doesn't plan on saying goodbye to THON anytime soon.

"Even though I'm moving on, I don't know how I could just stop helping the Four Diamonds Fund," she said. "THON changed my life -- and quite possibly saved it. It introduced me to some of my best friends and pulled me back from a really rough time. I think it's important to keep giving back in every way I can."

While Larson realizes she had a very different college experience from that of most students at Penn State, she is grateful for every part of it. "I know it sounds clichéd, but I strongly believe that everything happens for a reason," she said. "It wasn't easy, but I'd do it all over again because I've met so many wonderful people along the way."

For more information about THON, Penn State's Dance Marathon, or to make an online donation to the organization, visit http://thon.org.

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Last Updated November 18, 2010