"I cannot graduate [high school] and move on without giving back," Alex Smith says of her decision to attend Penn State and join THON

By Joelle Goldstein
February 18, 2021 04:37 PM
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A Pennsylvania teen who beat cancer is coming "full circle" as she prepares to attend and give back to the same college that saved her life.

Alex Smith tells PEOPLE she couldn't imagine going to any other school besides Penn State University after all that their student-run philanthropy, THON, has done for her.

"I'm really grateful for them," says Alex, 17. "I cannot graduate [high school] and move on without giving back. If I did, I'd feel pretty guilty."

Over the past three years, THON — the largest student-run philanthropy in the world — has taken Alex under their wing, providing emotional and financial support to her and her family as she battled leukemia.

Now cancer-free, Alex plans to join THON come fall — but first, she'll be supporting the organization as they hold THON Weekend Feb. 19-21.

The annual event, which celebrates its charitable efforts for Four Diamonds with a 46-hour dance marathon, will be held virtually for the first time due to the ongoing pandemic.

"We won't be there to support them physically," says Alex, who also has autism. "But we're always going to call and check on them, and if they need support, they've got us."

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Alex Smith
| Credit: courtesy Laura Smith
alex smith
Alex and Laura Smith
| Credit: courtesy Laura Smith

Prior to her cancer diagnosis in January 2017, Alex says she lived a typical teenage life, was "very active" and played basketball, track and soccer.

Things changed when Alex was 13 and suddenly collapsed at home. Testing by doctors later confirmed that she had leukemia.

"It was pretty scary," Alex recalls. "Because I was such a healthy person, it was actually really shocking to hear."

Adds her mom, Laura Smith: "There's no way to prepare for something like that... To have the doctors say that, it destroys your whole world in one moment."

Though she remained hopeful during treatment, Alex says she struggled emotionally from the isolation.

"My doctor said I had to stay home, despite whether I felt good or not," she explains. "Not being able to see my friends and participate in sports... it was definitely really hard."

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Alex Smith at THON
| Credit: courtesy Penn State Equestrian Team

On Alex's one-year anniversary of treatment, things got worse when her best friend's mom apologetically announced that her daughter could no longer handle being friends with someone who was so sick.

"I was friends with her since first grade," says Alex. "And just to know [it was] because of my condition, that really took a toll on me."

It was around that time that Alex and her family were introduced to THON.

"We didn't really know too much about THON at that point, despite living in this area," Laura explains. "But when we needed support, the people at the hospital said, 'Have we got a deal for you. We know the people who can really support you through this whole experience.'"

And they were certainly right.

In February 2018, Alex was officially paired with the Penn State Equestrian Team. Recently, they joined forces with Penn State's Professional Golf Management Group — widening Alex and her family's support circle.

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Alex Smith with the Penn State Equestrian Team
| Credit: courtesy Penn State Equestrian Team

Since then, the groups have formed a bond with Alex and her family, taking her and her 11-year-old brother Christian horseback riding, golfing and snow tubing and out to dinner and football games on campus.

They've also taken trips to Knoebels Amusement Resort, and most recently, organized a gingerbread house-making event over Zoom during the holidays.

"I've made some really good memories with them," Alex says. "Hands down, they're just amazing people, and I'm really glad to have them in my life."

Notes Laura: "They're involved in every single aspect of just about everything that both my kids do. It doesn't matter what Alex experiences, the young men and women of Penn State are there with her, 110% of the time... And we are forever grateful for that."

Even after she finished treatment a year ago, it was no surprise that she wanted to apply to Penn State. And over the holidays, she finally got her acceptance letter in the mail.

"We knew that it had to be Penn State or nothing," Laura says on behalf of her husband Douglas. "And we knew that Alex was not only going to go to where she wanted to go for college, but she's going to succeed."

Adds Katie Solomon, the executive director of Penn State's THON: "THON transforms you. It makes you want to do everything that you can to give back and Alex's story represents that."

"I know that she's going to go on, and she's now going to be a Penn State student herself. So she is really coming full circle," she adds. "She's an inspiration to us all to keep fighting so that more kids can have the opportunities that she does."

Looking ahead, Alex says she looks forward to helping other families the same way THON helped hers. After graduation, she hopes to become a child life therapist with a focus on art therapy.

"THON saved my life," Alex adds of the organization, which says it has helped more than 4,000 families and raised over $180 million to date. "I want to continue to raise awareness for childhood cancer so no parent has to be told that their kid has cancer, or that their kid's not going to make it."

"If someone is in need while they're in treatment, I would be more than willing to step up, and tell them, 'I'm here to be your friend, and everything's going to be okay, we'll get through this together,'" she adds.

RELATED VIDEO: Teacher Who Beat Cancer Twice Found a Way to Give Back to the Hospital That Treated Her

Once heartbroken for all her daughter had to endure, Laura focuses on the positives.

"Cancer can make or break a young person, especially when you're a teenager and you're going through puberty and undergoing treatment," Laura shares. "In Alex's case, it made her. It made her the person that she is today."

"There are no guarantees that life will be easy, but if you can face the challenges head-on, the way Alex did, you can find your way through, however dark that path might seem," adds Laura. "You just have to remember that you aren't alone. And in Alex's case, she has 70-something incredible young people who are with her every step of the way."

THON 2021, taking place Feb. 19-21, will be live-streamed from their website.

Those interested in learning more about the event or donating to the cause can do so here.