North Allegheny graduate inspired to help raise funds

| Friday, March 7, 2014, 6:57 p.m.

Bekah Tuckey was 5 when she was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia just five days before she was to start kindergarten in August 2011.

“The pediatrician told us that the fight wouldn't be a sprint, it would be a marathon,” recalled her mother, Kate, 35, of Tyrone Township in Adams County.

For 799 consecutive days, Bekah endured daily chemotherapy regimens. She persevered through countless blood tests, spinal taps, X-rays, MRIs, steroid treatments and intravenous immunoglobulin injections to boost her immune system.

“It became our new normal,” Bekah's mother said.

But so did another kind of marathon.

THON — the 46-hour, no-sitting, no-sleeping Penn State University Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon that has raised more than $114 million since 1977 for the fight against pediatric cancer — is one endurance test Bekah enjoys.

Now 8 and declared in remission Nov. 2, Bekah served as an inspiration for North Allegheny graduate and Franklin Park resident Christopher Aland, one of the 706 dancers in the 2014 event.

THON ran from 6 p.m. Feb. 21 to 4 p.m. Feb. 23 at the Bryce Jordan Center at Penn State in State College. A record-breaking $13,343,517 was raised.

Aland, a senior at Penn State, met Bekah during his sophomore year, when he joined a special-interest organization on campus called HEAL, which stands for Help Every Angel Live. It is one of the many campus organizations that forge relationships with pediatric-cancer patients and their families at the Penn State Hershey Children's Hospital and their families and help raise money to fight the disease.

HEAL and its members have been paired with Bekah and her family since 2011.

“The Tuckeys are fighting every day with this monster that has invaded their lives,” said Aland, 22, a broadcast journalism major.

He helped HEAL raise $79,000 this year by participating in fundraising activities that culminated with THON.

Aland and other HEAL members also routinely make the four-hour round trip to the Tuckeys' home near Gettysburg to take the family's children on outings or play football with them in their yard.

“THON is every day for us,” Kate Tuckey explained. “It's not just dancing. It's a day-to-day support system. Every day, I get an encouraging text from one of the students. And it always seems to come at the right time.”

She described Aland as a bundle of energy, much like Bekah.

“His sense of humor is the same as hers,” she said. “They get each other. Bekah is a sassy little diva, and Chris gives it right back to her. He can get her to laugh, even when she doesn't want to.”

Bekah returned the favor during THON, when Aland needed it the most.

“By Saturday morning, my lower back began to throb, and my feet felt like a nail was being driven through them,” he said.

Bekah stayed up all night that Saturday to dance with him.

“I didn't think she could stay awake all night long, but she did. That was a real boost,” Aland said.

During THON's final four hours on Sunday afternoon, Aland thought he would faint.

“I just kept chugging Gatorade and water,” he said.

When it was over, he slept for 21 straight hours.

“I couldn't be any more proud of him,” said his mother, Lorraine Aland, 59, of Franklin Park.

Having survived THON, Aland now has an answer for those who ask him what a dance marathon has to do with cancer.

“It's a metaphor,” said Aland, explaining that the pain felt during 46 hours of dancing symbolizes cancer; the support dancers receive from family and friends is the medicine that helps them keep going; and when the marathon ends and the dancers finally can sit down, that symbolizes the victory over cancer.

Laurie Rees is a freelance writer for Trib Total Media.

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