The summer was to be a pivotal one in the life of Ben Levit. He was going to spend an internship in Israel that would give him the hands-on medical experience he wanted to someday be a trauma surgeon.
The irony: The strapping and strong University of Pittsburgh student got to ride with an Israeli ambulance squad - as a patient.
On June 18, Levit was diagnosed with stage 3 Burkitt's lymphoma, an especially fast-growing form of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma most commonly found in male adolescents.
In his family's Gladwyne home, Levit, now 20, remembered how those summer days had unfolded. Pain started in his chest a few days before he left for Israel. Then, on the plane and when he arrived, he felt exhausted and ill. Strangely, his clothes felt tight.
But he was a guy who had a history of testing himself - as an honor student at Harriton High, cocaptain of his football team, a delegate to the Boys State leadership program, and a wrestler. At 16, he spent part of his summer with the U.S. Army Cadet Corps, now named the American Cadet Alliance, in Kentucky, enduring long days of demanding drills and calisthenics.
So Levit tried to push through. Finally, he convinced the program coordinators that he wasn't just homesick or exaggerating. And when tests revealed that he was seriously ill, he actually felt relief.
"I just wanted to be believed. The idea that I was malingering felt awful," Levit said. "Deep down, I knew that something was really wrong, because I can deal with pain."
The pain came from lesions in his chest and abdomen. With Burkitt's, symptoms can come on so quickly that by the time the disease is diagnosed, it already has spread. His physician father, Larry, immediately flew to Israel to Medevac his son home.
Just before the flight, a realization hit Levit: He would be needing aggressive chemotherapy - and he would lose his beloved beard, the one he had started at 15 in an effort to look older.
In the hospital room, he said something to a visiting buddy about how he'd miss it.
"He looked at me and said, 'It's OK,' " Levit said. " 'I'll grow a beard for you.' "
The Ben Levit's Beard Cancer Challenge Facebook page was born, where a video of Levit (now viewed nearly 70,000 times) explains the request: "I do the chemotherapy and beat cancer. You grow me a beard."
Almost immediately, a flood of get-well notes and beard photos were posted. Real beards, fake ones, big beards and small ones, beards worn by seniors and toddlers, friends and families, and by strangers across the globe. These days, the page has more than 4,370 members with posts from England, Australia, Israel, South America, and all across the U.S.
"It's been amazing, and still is," says his mother, Ana, who has seen how grateful and inspired her son is because of the zany, imaginative, and original contributions.
Women's beards are arguably the most creative, with "hair" fashioned from yarn or fabric, paper and pipe cleaners.
There have been intricately braided beards and beards made of shaving cream. Contrasts are striking, with entries from rugged guys with impressive growth to sprite female gymnasts sporting pink, gauzy beards.
Robin Reisman, Levit's aunt, has been immersed in the project, making it a priority to regularly post to his page selfies with beards she's fashioned from dominoes, lemons, keys, Scrabble pieces, nori, leaves, pine needles, and puzzle pieces, among other inspirations.
"I have always been a person who hates being in pictures, but for this cause and this nephew, I gladly surrendered," said Reisman, who also began finding beard clubs and enlisting submissions.
Unexpected gestures have touched Levit deeply.
His college fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, headed a fund-raiser for lymphoma research. Organizers say they want it to become an annual event, with the $5,469 already raised a promising start.
A passionate Eagles fan, Levit got to FaceTime with his idol, offensive tackle Jason Peters, and his family - which includes five siblings - were invited to a home game in November. And Levit's former high school coaches invited him to informally train some of his former teammates.
But one of the most touching tributes came from a group of six burly, bearded strangers.
With the help of his parents and older brother Alexander, members of the Bearded Sinners piled into vans from Ohio and New Hampshire to make their way to Children's Hospital to make Levit an honorary member of their 18-chapter national organization dedicated to beards - and public service.
"We look like the kind of people you'd cross the street to avoid," said the genial leader of the delegation, Billy Braker from Ohio. "But we're bearded guys who admired this kid for his guts, and we're really all about helping people as a club."
"It's really hard to describe how I felt," Levit said. "These guys I didn't even know took all the time and trouble, stayed with me for hours, and had some of the best beards I'd ever seen."
The daily flow of posts keeps Levit inspired as he faces the rigors of chemo. His treatments are so aggressive they can cause bad reactions, forcing his doctors to reduce dosages. The good news: He is more than halfway through the regimen. Although Levit could not return to college this year, he looks forward to a postponed sophomore year next fall.
"The experience has made him more mature," said his father, who has witnessed his son's "unrelenting commitment and focus. He refuses to wallow in self-pity or to be defined by his illness."
"He knows that so many other people struggle, too," said Ana.
Levit's grandparents say their 6-foot-3 grandson is proving once again that he's a gentle giant.
"Ben is not a saint," said his grandmother Evelyn. "He was a mischievous kid, not an angel. But he has grown into a man who is so strong and so determined that we look for a complete recovery and, then, a life that will truly make a difference."