THE CARLY WILFONG FAMILY
On March 18, 1993, I was diagnosed with T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. I was three and a half years old, my sister Logan was only sixteen months, and my mother had just discovered she was pregnant with my brother Tanner. My family was living in Williamsburg, VA, at the time and I received my treatments at the Medical Center of Virginia in Richmond. Before finishing treatment, my family moved to Raleigh, NC where I continued my treatment at Duke Children’s hospital. I received chemotherapy for two and a half years as well as 12 days of cranial spinal radiation due to my spinal column having leukemic involvement.
My treatments ended in October of 1995. In August of 1998 my family relocated to Hummelstown, PA and we currently still reside here. After moving to Pennsylvania, I was assigned to Dr. John Neely at Penn State Hershey Medical Center for follow-up care. Later, I became a patient of Dr. Robert Greiner, a pediatric hematology and oncology specialist who focuses on young adult cancer survivors at Hershey Medical Center. I was involved with Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital for a few years once I became Dr. Greiner’s patient, but I hadn’t really heard much about THON until I was visiting Penn State one year to watch my brother swim at a swim team meet. At the hotel we were staying in I came across a newspaper that had an article in it all about THON. It was that newspaper that sparked my interest in THON, and from there on out I knew I had to get involved.
Although at certain times it can seem as if cancer can only take from the people it impacts, something cancer has given me throughout my cancer journey, is wisdom. I gained wisdom from so many people I met along the way during my cancer experience, including my social worker Greg Baiocchi at Hershey Children's Hospital and all of the doctors who treated me along the way. Aside from the medical staff I’ve had the privilege of getting to know, I gained wisdom from being involved with mini-THON since I was in high school. Being involved in my high school’s mini-THON gave me all the tools and wisdom I needed to help start Lebanon Valley College's first mini-THON in 2011. It was at this mini-THON that I began to meet many other four diamond children and families, like Nick Pantalone and his family. I have gained an immense amount of wisdom, friendship, love and support through many of the four diamond families I’ve encountered. Some of the families I’ve met along the way have even become my best friend, like Dominique Bigler, while other families like the ones who have lost their kids to cancer, have taught me so much about strength and optimism. Some of the other Four Diamond families I’ve meet and continue to THON for include; the Pulaski family, and the Evans family. Devin from the Pulaski family, and Aubrey from the Evans family are two younger four diamond girls who I feel really look up to me, which melts my heart and makes my involvement in THON so much more rewarding.
While I am grateful for all the wisdom I have gained from the THON community and the interactions I have had with other four diamond families; I recognize the importance of sharing the wisdom I’ve gained with other families who are struggling. I do my best to offer families advice, support, and comfort when they want someone to talk to who has experienced the difficulties they are currently facing. I truly enjoy when I get to help prepare newer families for THON weekend or THON activities so that they can truly enjoy all the magic that is ingrained within the THON community without ever feeling overwhelmed. I feel compelled to support other THON families so that they feel prepared for all THON events and more importantly, I also want to help them feel welcomed into one of the largest and compassionate families at Penn State. The THON family/community offers so much love and support to my family, and families like mine, which is why I feel it is so important that our newer families feel welcomed. Getting to help and give advice to our newer families is one of my favorite parts of being a component to the THON community. It is so important to me that every family always knows I am here to help them out whenever they need it and I feel that through doing this I have made life-long friends. The friendships I’ve gained in the THON community are some of the most incredible friendships I have in my life because I feel that we’re able to mutually support each other through the hardships we face in life.
As a survivor, I feel compelled to say that one of the most wonderful aspects that THON offers myself and other survivors, is a place free of judgement and hate. My treatment left me with many scars and side effects, which many other cancer survivors can relate to. At times the circumstances that cancer treatment leaves us survivors with can make us feel like we do not belong and that we are different from our peers. Personally, my treatment caused my growth to be stunted and I am not as tall as my friends or family members. My stunted growth really bothers me, especially when I go somewhere, and people give me ugly stares which at times can make me feel like I’m weird and do not belong. THON is a whole type of different atmosphere, where no one, not even children going through treatment, have to care about being judged. The THON community is always so welcoming and loving no matter what your story is. THON is a non judgement zone for all families, children who are battling cancer, and those who are off treatment. This is why I THON for so many families, because no one should ever feel or be judged.
Today, I am a petite and healthy 30-year-old woman who is pursuing a job that allows me to work with children and their families dealing with cancer. I am proud to say that I am 26 years in remission! For now, I work part time for my dad’s custom door building business. I enjoy being active and being a youth leader at my church, attending THON, and volunteering on weekends at the Hershey Ronald McDonald House. Recently, I became a Zumba instructor and I am working towards instructing children on and off cancer treatment. I am on the Pediatric Family Advisory council and as a former patient, I attend monthly meetings with the medical staff and help third floor nurses within the Quality and Safety Department at Hershey Children’s Hospital. I stay in contact with friends whom I have met at Camp-Mak-A-Dream in Gold Creek, Montana, which is a summer camp for cancer patients in treatment and survivors. Additionally, I enjoy spending time with my family, Penn State friends, my org PSFA, and my pen pals who are on the entertainment committee at PSU. I also find joy staying connected those who were involved with The Hope Express, one of the first THON events that showed me THON’s sense of a family and community. I learned through the Hope Express that THON is just a large family filled with hope that one day together, we will find a cure for the kids®. Being a part of THON's HOPE Express gave me a sense of support and comfort that I carry with me every day and try to emulate with each interaction I have with other fellow four diamond families.