The following is the speech that was given by AJ Jacunski during THON 2023 Family Hour about his brother Jay and what THON means to their family. Family Hour is one of the most anticipated hours during the weekend and occurs during the "Final Four" hours of THON Weekend. Four Diamonds families are recognized on stage during Family Hour and a few share their stories with the dancers, THON volunteers and everyone else in attendance and watching virtually.
"I carry your heart with me… I am never without it” - E.E. Cummings
An Introduction to Jay
Jay was what you expect from a teenage boy – loved football, lacrosse, being a fireman, and, of course, making people laugh. Jay had a way of lighting up every room he walked into. Whether or not he wanted to be there, he found a way to make people smile. Jay had a great desire to help others and did so by becoming a junior firefighter at our local volunteer department.
If I had to describe Jay in a few words it would be brave, loving, strong, and wise. Jay was the second oldest sibling, and the oldest brother in the family. He fulfilled every role that a big brother should – poking fun at his younger brothers, showing them how to have fun with a pile of dirt and some camouflage, and of course, how to protect each other and love each other unconditionally. He had a “look at me go” attitude and did not let anyone step on him. He may have been little – but his large personality made up for it.
Jay's Childhood Cancer Diagnosis
Fast forward to 2010. Jay was sick on and off for a little while. Thinking it was the flu and that he would get better. Then a few weeks later, he got worse. After many tests, on April 27, 2010, Jay was diagnosed with a form of lymphoma. After my parents and Jay received this diagnosis, they got all the support information that Four Diamonds had to offer and what the treatment would look like. That support included social workers, child life specialists, a clinical psychologist, oh… and 16,500 Penn State THON students.
I’ll never forget the day my dad sat us down and told me, my brother Michael and my sister Alyssa that Jay had cancer. Jay, has cancer. The moment you hear that your sibling has cancer, your head fills with questions. What does cancer mean? Will he be okay? Does this change how our family will live? The unfortunate truth is that there is no concrete answer to these questions. Jay was a 16-year-old gearing up to start summer practices for football, finishing his sophomore year of high school and preparing to get his driver’s license. But now, he had to worry about what it meant to live with cancer.
My older brother, this strong and powerful older brother figure, was going to be torn apart from cancer
Jay's Battle with Childhood Cancer
The end of May came around and it was time for Jay to come home for the first time after 30 days in the hospital. It was hard to watch. He became very weak. He was fragile due to the harsh side effects of the treatment. He had a hard time keeping food down, so he had to take in most of his nutrients through an IV. He would take one step forward, then get an infection and take four steps back. The hardest part was watching him go through all of this. We all had to stand by and watch him go through this, and there was nothing we could do but sit there and be with him during the good and the bad times.
September came and the end of treatment looked to be in sight. Jay was said to have only a few treatments left and he was responding very well to the treatments. Jay was doing amazing, until he wasn’t. October 22, the day Jay could only move half of his face, the day they found out that the cancer spread to his brain fluid. Jay was slowly losing his life and we had to stand there and watch him get poked and prodded, watch him suffer in immense pain, and watch the treatment weaken him even more. November 19, my dad’s birthday, Jay’s lung collapsed, and he was placed on a ventilator. Over the next few weeks Jay lost his ability to communicate. He continued to decline. One moment that I will remember for the rest of my life is standing next to his bed in the ICU, taking his hand, and talking to him and saying I love you – and see the response to me through his vital signs.
After 7 months and 18 days, on December 15, 2010, Jay found peace as he passed away. He was 16.
Childhood Cancer's Impact on a Family
My family does not have a happy ending or a celebratory ending. There is a dark reality of cancer that is not always seen – the reality of the pain and weakness brought on by treatment, the mental toll of sitting in a hospital for months at a time, and the sad truth that not everyone will make it through. But I recently heard this quote: “It’s not about what you’ve lost, it’s about you’ve found.” I think this perfectly encapsulates losing a loved one to cancer – especially at a young age. While we lost a large part of our family, and we still have an empty seat at our dinner table, my family has found so much. From the support from our friends and family, to support from our THON friends and family, we have been able to keep Jay alive through stories, photos, memories, and opportunities like THON.
We get to remember who HE was and not what the cancer made him.
I want you all to look around right now. Look at the colors, the signs, the lights, the people standing next to you, all of this done for families and kids that you don’t know. Think about what this means to my parents and the parents of every bereaved family, my brother and sister who have also stood where you are all standing. Knowing what it means changes THON’s mission from “committed to enhancing the lives of children and families impacted by childhood cancer” to “committed to enhancing the lives of the Jacunski family” or any other family that receives the benefits and support of you all.
The impact that your time has on families does not go unnoticed and it actually makes the tortuous journey of living with cancer that much easier. The unfortunate truth of the time and effort you all give to THON is that you cannot guarantee that a family will have more time or unlimited time with each other, but what you all do is ensure that every single family has quality time together. That is all we can ask for. And all that you truly can provide. You give each other and the families you support the love and time that they deserve.
THON is incredible.
THON's Impact on Childhood Cancer and Families
Have you ever really thought about what THON is? 16,500 Penn State THON students, all of you, giving up an entire weekend of partying or studying or sleeping, for children stuck in the hospital or children still feeling lifelong side effects or children who have died and didn’t get the opportunity to go to college. That is amazing. And you are all a part of that.
Please, if you remember anything I said today please let it be this quote. “When we do things for ourselves, they die with us, but when we do things for humanity they live on forever.” That is what you are all doing right now.
So, remember this. When you watch the Celebration of Life Video, when your organization may not be the number one fundraiser, when you wake up tomorrow exhausted before class, when you leave here and are no longer in the “THON season,” remember that you are doing all of this, for this mission, for the families that you are paired with and for all of the families that you may never meet; and to keep hope alive for these families.
Jay will live on forever because of all of you. So, thank you for doing what you do. Thank you for taking a stand against childhood cancer. Thank you for believing in this mission. And thank you for giving me this opportunity to introduce you to my big brother, Jay.
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