In February 2013, Brady Lucas spent nine hours a day in a protective bubble in a Pennsylvania hospital fighting respiratory syncytial virus (RSV). The respiratory illness became severe from his compromised immune system, which was related to a 2011 bone marrow transplant Brady had to cure his cancer.
During those long days, Brady would frequently receive texts and Snapchats from fraternity brothers at Phi Kappa Sigma at Penn State. “You good?” “You need anything?” they would ask, day after day.
The brothers had “adopted” the then 16-year-old, and those texts and their visits meant as much to him as the lifesaving treatments he was receiving.
“Anything I ever needed, they would do,” he tells PEOPLE. “They provided so much support, it got me through the hard times – every hard time – and they provided me with good times.”
Brady is now a healthy sophomore and Phi Kappa Sigma brother himself at Penn State – and he s been in remission from acute lymphoblastic leukemia for five years. “This is the only university I could attend,” he says, “and this is the university that saved my life.”
The reason for his devotion is a Penn State volunteer group that the fraternity brothers had joined called THON, the world’s largest student-run charity that works all year towards an annual 46-hour long dance-a-thon that allows no sitting and no sleeping.
Since 1977, students have raised $127 million for Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center’s Four Diamonds, which supports pediatric cancer research and offers an adopt-a-family program, as well as financial payments for every child, whatever insurance doesn’t cover.
“The emotional support is the dearest thing to my heart,” Brady says. “It kept me smiling, it kept me going for more than just myself and my family, for every single kid in the world. Without THON, I wouldn’t be here today.”
This year’s event begins Friday night at the school’s basketball arena, the Bryce Jordan Center. Over 50,000 students, families and children with cancer are expected to attend. It is the culmination of a year-long effort of some 15,000 THON volunteers, who are oftentimes spotted with cans at traffic intersections seeking donations.
As his frat’s THON chairman, Brady led an effort to raise some $40,000 for this year’s THON. He’ll also be one of 708 dancers who will take the floor at the event, despite the liver disease he developed from chemotherapy treatments.
The event also includes emotional tributes from families who have lost their children to cancer as well as from kids who have survived – like Brady.
When Brady was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia at 8 years old, he entered Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center for treatment. There, Penn State students volunteering on the ward did arts and crafts and played video games with him during his 23-day hospital stay.
The students lifted Brady’s spirits so much that he decided back then that he wanted to attend Penn State. “It was a dream to me,” he says.
That first day of Brady’s hospital stay, a social worker told Brady’s father that all of his non-insurance needs, such as co-payments and deductibles, would be covered. “They saved me tens of thousands of dollars,” says Tom Lucas, 49, of York, Pennsylvania. “I can t imagine going through it without their help.”
After three years of chemotherapy, Brady s disease was in remission. But in September 2010, his cancer returned with a more dire prognosis of just a 40 to 50 percent cure rate and/or survival rate, his father recalls.
Doctors at Hershey Medical Center decided on a bone marrow treatment to save Brady. Luckily, his younger brother, Shaun, was a perfect match and soon after the procedure in February 2011, Brady was once again in remission.
Later that year, Brady got word that a fraternity on Penn State’s Campus, Phi Kappa Sigma, wanted to “adopt” him and his family. They visited the then high school sophomore, and lifted his spirits with texts, Facebook posts and Tweets “to make sure I am alright, my family is alright,” he says.
“I would be a little bit down and someone would reach out and say, ‘You’re good’ and ‘You’re fine.’ ”
Yet Brady admits he has an inborn sense of optimism, and has always believed he would survive.
“Ever since I have been born, I am a person who always smiles every second of the day,” he says. “If you have a happy, confident mindset, anything can be accomplished. I can get through anything with my mind.”
And now as a THON volunteer, he’s “adopted” other kids with cancer, sharing his story and providing them with the support that so many Penn State students had once given him.
“Brady is incredibly supportive, whether it be an encouraging text message or stopping by for a visit,” says Madison Hill, 18, of York, Pennsylvania, who was diagnosed with lymphoblastic lymphoma at age 8 and is now being treated for acute myeloid leukemia and paraneoplastic syndrome.
“He is more than a supporter but a best friend. Although everyone’s journey is different, to have an individual that has a sense of what you are going through can make the difference, she says.