Some of Tucker Haas’s earliest memories are of the hospital, where he was receiving treatment for a rare form of cancer.
At 2 years old, the now 19-year-old York resident was diagnosed with Rhabdomyosarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue that grew on the right side of his face and right rib. He became a Four Diamonds child and attended his first Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon Thon at age four, while receiving treatment at Penn State Children’s Hospital.
But 17 years, three relapses, 77 radiation treatments and 16 Thons later, Haas is cancer-free and settling into his freshman year at Penn State’s University Park campus, his dream school.
“My childhood was so much different than a normal person’s,” said Haas, sitting in the Thon store at the HUB-Robeson Center on a sunny September afternoon. “Instead of going and doing something, I’d be going to the hospital for a checkup. So my routine was just different and I was forced to grow up a lot faster than an average kid.”
In the early years of his diagnosis, Haas’s parents explained the cancer as, “I have bad germs in my body that I’m getting medication for” to get rid of them, he said.
Being diagnosed so young was hard for Haas, who didn’t know what cancer was until later in his illness. He had to make many tough decisions, but in many ways his parents made the toughest calls.
“The decisions that were made were some decisions that my parents still say to this day were some of the hardest decisions that they’ve ever had to make and probably will ever have to make,” he said.
Becoming a Four Diamonds kid introduced him to the world of Thon, which he has attended since 2003. He was “adopted” by the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and Zeta Tau Alpha sorority, the two Greek organizations with the highest Thon fundraising totals for 25 years straight. Last year was Haas’s 16th Thon.
“It’s the experience when you walk into the BJC at Friday night at 6 o’ clock when everybody stands up … music’s playing, it’s just so unreal, it’s so breathtaking,” he said.
Though always a lover of sports, Haas wasn’t able to play them much due to missing a third of his lung from cancer treatments. He intends to study athletic training at Penn State to help others work through sports-related injuries.
“My cancer kind of took sports away from me,” he said. “I was never really able to play them because I had limitations from my cancer treatments. So that kind of made an impact on why I wanted to do athletic training.”
Since Haas relapsed three times, he and his family were hesitant to celebrate his remission each time it came. When he hit five years cancer-free, they threw a huge party with Thon volunteers, ATO and Zeta members and alumni, friends and family.
“It was probably one of the coolest nights of my life,” said Haas. “Just seeing everyone there for you and everyone there to support you and not just beating cancer, it was bigger than that. It was more of a milestone to move to the next chapter of my life after defeating cancer.”
Now that he’s in his next chapter, the friendship of the brothers and sisters of ATO and Zeta has helped him settle in at Penn State. In the spring, he wants to rush ATO and become a brother.
“They’ve taken me in as a family,” he said.
Haas hopes to get involved with Thon this year and eventually dance his senior year — which will be his 20th Thon.
“It’s just so inspiring to see all of them,” Thon Executive Director Regina Duesler said of Haas and the Four Diamond kids. “All of the Four Diamonds children are always so upbeat and positive … (cancer) doesn’t define them, and they truly are kids and they are shaping to be leaders.”
For Haas, something clicked when he finally made it to Penn State for his freshman year. He applied to several other colleges but Penn State was his first choice. He got deferred, and eventually accepted.
“I just didn’t really ever think that it would work out like this,” he said. “Because a lot of things in my life … haven’t worked out very well for me. But when I was able to get into Penn State, and finally realize that this is my home now and I can consider this place home. My parents dropped me off … to come to Penn State, and they were just dropping me off at home. It’s just crazy to see that I’m finally here now and I can grow and develop into the best person I can be through Penn State and through Thon.”