I just got to Starbucks and I’m upstairs at table. If you see this email it’ll be much easier to find me 🙂
I got the email about ten minutes before I was scheduled to meet up with Kayla Nakonechni, a Penn State senior who, in just six months, went from THON dancer to THON child. I had first heard Nakonechni ‘s story a few months ago when we initially wrote about her battle with stage 4 Astrocytoma, a form of cancer that originates in the brain. Most Penn Staters have probably heard or seen “Team Kayla” on Twitter or on t-shirts around campus. Now, you might just catch Nakonechni herself on campus, as she has returned to officially begin her senior year.
It is easy to see why Nakonechni has thousands of people on her side. The 22 year old didn’t hesitate on sharing any details of the past year of her life, from losing most of her hair due to her radiation treatments to how out of shape she feels walking to class.
Her battle began about 10 months ago when she began to notice twitches and small movements. After suffering multiple seizures, the diagnosis was confirmed as cancer.
Since the last time we caught up with Nakonechni, she has hit a couple of “speed bumps,” including being taken out of a chemotherapy study and put into a different one because her low blood levels called for a blood transfusion in late November. After her first week back at Penn State, Nakonechni had to return to Hershey Medical Center for a follow-up where everything looked good.
She is currently taking nine credits, not quite full time, but enough that she can continue with her education and still have time to rest. Not many students can say that they are taking classes and chemotherapy simultaneously — but on the bright side, most of the extensive treatments are behind her, and her chemotherapy is a self-administered pill, which cuts down on the number of trips Nakonechni has to take to Hershey Medical Center.
“It has been really good [to be back],” Nakonechni said. “It hasn’t really felt like I left. It has been nice to be back with my roommates and have a normal schedule, and not have to worry about things. The only thing that is tough is that my medicine schedule is what I have to base my day off of.”
Nakonechni was also sure to talk about the unwavering support that she has received from the Penn State community, from her roommates to professors, and even the disabilities office, which helped her adjust to being back. THON has also played a crucial role in helping her to realize that things have come full circle over the past year. After raising about $13,000 for THON and being chosen to independently dance at THON 2013, Nakonechni has been able to see THON from both sides, as the fundraiser and the beneficiary.
“Its unreal almost, you never expect something like that to happen,” Nakonechni said. “Being picked to dance is a blessing in itself, and knowing that this is what I raised money for is a nice reminder.”
But despite everything she has been through, Nakonechni hardly sees herself as a victim, but rather a volunteer fighting for the same cause as 15,000 of her peers. In fact, she even bought a student ticket for Sunday’s THON Hoops game, even though all Four Diamonds families are given free entrance.
As for what the future holds, Nakonechni isn’t sure, just like most college students. She hopes to attend grad school then get accepted to medical school. And what kind of medicine is she thinking of studying? Pediatrics of course.
“Make the best of even the worst situations,” Nakonechni said. “Obviously I am in a very crappy situation, but I think THON is really what has turned it around. Being back at Penn State is a huge help. I am still getting treatments and going through a battle, but I am doing the best that I can with it.”