AUBURN, Ala. - Like a lot of Auburn students at football games, Kayla Funk did more standing than sitting. Even when cancer treatments sapped her strength.
“I love Auburn,” she says. “Every game I went to, I would stand the whole time no matter how tired I was. No matter how bad I felt. I just loved being there. I loved being in Auburn.”
Freshman year can be a challenge for students, adjusting academically and socially.
Now imagine finding out the day before classes start that the cancer you hoped you had beaten – with more than a year of chemo, radiation and a bone marrow transplant - was back.
In the fall of 2014, Kayla went to class at Auburn University in the morning. In the afternoon, she went to Atlanta for cancer treatments.
“A really tough year, but also a really good year because I was just so happy to be at Auburn,” says Kayla. “It was my dream for years and years and had been put on hold. I was finally there and I was so happy.”
At the end of Kayla’s freshman year, in the spring of 2015, her cancer returned again. A brain tumor.
Kayla recovered, returning to Auburn in the fall for her sophomore year. Fall semester went well, but in the spring, the brain tumors returned – twice, forcing her to medically withdraw.
“My journey at Auburn was one of the most satisfying things I did because when I was told that I had relapsed, my doctor said, ‘You need to think about what’s important to you in your life. You need to think about what you want to accomplish. What you want to experience,’" she says. "That was the day before my first day of freshman classes, so I said, ‘I’m going to Auburn.’
“It was incredibly satisfying, but it was also a very hard season of being sick and working through cancer treatments at the same time as working through all of my classes. It’s a season of my life that I will always look back on and say, ‘That was really hard and I’m really proud of myself that I made it through it.’”
Last February, after battling neuroblastoma for three years, Kayla’s parents were given a grim diagnosis. Their daughter, the doctor said, had maybe two months to live. She was 20.
Kayla and her boyfriend of nearly five years, fellow Auburn student Austin Funk, had planned to marry eventually. They decided to expedite their timetable. Kayla wrote this in her blog:
I'm living like I'm dying, but I'm also living like I'll never die. Austin and I are traveling, taking in all life has to offer, loving hard, fighting when we have to, and doing everything we can to try to keep me healthy enough to continue doing these things.
Kayla turned 21 last March. Instead of planning a funeral, Kayla and her family planned a wedding. She and Austin were married in May.
Miraculously, two months turned into three. Three turned into four. And so on.
“In February, I was told I had 6 to 8 weeks to live, and here I am, 8 months with no tumors,” Kayla says.
Kayla wants to be a nurse. Austin, a doctor. He withdrew from Auburn to help care for her. They talked about returning to Auburn, but now their friends are graduating and leaving.
So the Funks are moving to Tucson, Arizona.
“What if we did something different. We are 21 and I’m healthy. What the heck? Why not? Let’s just do something ‘go big or go home,’” Kayla says.
“Arizona, I’ve always loved it. Never been, but I’ve always wanted to go. Austin said, ‘I’ll go wherever you want to go.’
“He will finish his undergrad there. He’s going to medical school, so wherever medical school takes us, then I will finish my nursing degree there.”
When Kayla was at Auburn, she founded Open Hands Overflowing Hearts to raise money for childhood cancer research, hoping to spare others from the suffering she’s endured.
“What we love even more than people just donating is people getting involved themselves and bring their communities in and getting their communities involved,” Kayla says.
Supporters have held bake sales and golf tournaments. Middle-school boys held a video game tournament. A friend is hiking the Appalachian Trail, with sponsors donating to Kayla’s foundation.
To support Kayla and other members of the Auburn family whose lives have been touched by cancer, Auburn Athletics lights the video board at Jordan-Hare Stadium on the first Wednesday of each month with colors associated with various cancers. Teal and white, for cervical cancer awareness, is highlighted in January.
The video board will also display Auburn’s AUTLIVE cancer logo. Coach Bruce Pearl created AUTLIVE to promote cancer awareness and raise money for treatment and research.
Kayla encourages people to move from awareness to action.
“That’s the gap that we’re trying to close,” she says. “You’ve been made aware, whether it’s through us or other channels. You know what’s going on, but please don’t look away. Please don’t let it just be that. Let it be that you know, and you want to do something about it.”
Jeff Shearer is a Senior Writer at AuburnTigers.com. Follow him on Twitter: Follow @jeff_shearer