In early 2017, Alex Smith was just your average active teenager who loved to play basketball, soccer, and run track. The Pennsylvania teen’s life became complicated when she collapsed at home later that year, and tests by her doctor revealed the then-thirteen year old had leukemia. Speaking with PEOPLE, Alex shares what it was like to receive such a scary diagnosis:
“It was pretty scary. Because I was such a healthy person, it was actually really shocking to hear.”
On top of her cancer diagnosis, Alex also has autism, which has created its own challenges in her life. One of the most surprising things about her diagnosis is that Alex felt fine. Due to the havoc cancer treatments wreaks on the immune system, Alex’s doctors told her she had to stay home and isolate as much as possible from germs that could complicate her fight against the disease.
“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.”
About a year into her treatments, Alex was really struggling emotionally with the affects of the diagnosis and treatments. That’s when the hospital introduced the Smith family to THON, the largest student-run philanthropy in the world that is based out of Penn State University. As stated on their website:
“THON is a student-run philanthropy committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer. Our mission is to provide emotional and financial support, spread awareness, and ensure funding for critical research—all in pursuit of a cure.”
In February of 2018, THON paired Alex with the Penn State Equestrian Team and then with the university’s Professional Golf Management Group, significantly widening the Smith family’s circle of support. The two student groups have really stepped up for the family, taking Alex and her 11-year old brother horseback riding, golfing, and to a plethora of other activities including at-home football games.
“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.”
Alex’s mom, Laura expounds on the impact THON has had on Alex and her family:
“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.”
The incredible support Alex received from the university made her application there after graduating from high school a no-brainer. Alex’s drive and determination made her acceptance to the university a no-brainer to her family, with Alex receiving her official invitation in December to join the student body.
“We knew that it had to be Penn State or nothing,” Laura said. “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.”
Alex wants her time at Penn State to set her up to give back to young people the same way the university gave back to her. She plans on becoming a child life therapist with a focus on art therapy.
“THON saved my life. 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.
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Laura Smith couldn’t be prouder of all her daughter has overcome at such a tender age. She knows that Alex’s tenacity and fortitude will be an encouragement to others who are experiencing serious life hardships.
“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.”
Read the Smith family’s story here on THONs website.