A smile many call contagious is quickly becoming an inspiration.
After dancing at THON a mere six months ago, Penn State senior Kayla Nakonechni was diagnosed with a grade-four astrocytoma, Nakonechni’s boyfriend John Tecce said.
Just two weeks after standing for 46 hours in February to raise money and awareness for pediatric cancer at Penn State’s Interfraternity Council/Panhellenic Dance Marathon, Nakonechni began having symptoms leading to thoughts of possible epilepsy, Tecce, Class of 2012, said.
However, Nakonechni’s symptoms began to worsen as she had increased amounts of seizures, which after many tests, lead to the discovery of an abnormal finding on her parietal lobe and the diagnosis of nocturnal seizures in March, Nakonechni wrote in her blog titled, “Life is tough, but I’m tougher.”
In order to remove the finding from Nakonechni’s brain, she underwent brain surgery at Milton S. Hershey Medical Center in August and was later diagnosed with a grade-four astrocytoma, she wrote.
The treatment needed for Nakonechni’s diagnosis is rounds of radiation, intravenous chemotherapy, chemotherapy pills for the next year and MRI tests every two months, Tecce said.
Two weeks ago, Nakonechni finished her IV chemotherapy, and last Friday she had her final round of radiation treatment with “a smile from finish to end,” he said.
“[Nakonechni] received some good news [Wednesday] in the form of an MRI showing only normal swelling from radiation,” Tecce said.
In order to help Nakonechni and her family both financially and emotionally, many friends and members of the Penn State community have held multiple different fundraisers and are currently in the midst of a tailgate competition to raise $1,000 for “Team Kayla.”
Nakonechni said she’s appreciated the supporters from all over the state. The most important way to deal with her situation, she said, is by having a positive attitude.
“I couldn’t imagine handling it any differently because you can’t look at it in a negative way,” Nakonechni said. “You have to get up every morning and smile and remember why you’re tougher than this — you’ll get through this.”
“Team Kayla” began after a friend suggested creating social media accounts in order to keep everyone in the loop, he said.
“Kayla is the type of person who always wants to keep everyone happy,” Tecce said. “She is the definition of perseverance and her blog and ‘Team Kayla’ have been her ways of focus to beat this thing and come out on top.”
Friend of Nakonechni, Scott Lattimer said he, Tecce and a group of Nakonechni's fellow Nittanyville campers decided to take part in the Tailgate of the Year competition. They decided to participate not only because of their dedication to tailgating at Penn State football games, but to ultimately win the $1,000 donation to a charity of choice.
Lattimer’s group, the “Paternoville Alumni/Team Kayla” will donate the winnings to “Team Kayla” if they win Tailgate of the Year, Lattimer, Class of 2013, said.
“Cancer touches you in a lot of ways and a lot of times, the financial aspect isn’t realized right away,” Tecce said.
After narrowing down 50 original online video submissions to six finalists and then proceeding to undergo in-person judging, online voting for fan favorites in the tailgate competition began after more in depth video descriptions were made about each tailgate, Lattimer said.
Fans can vote for their favorite tailgate on any electronic device once every 24 hours until 9 a.m. Saturday morning, he said. The fan voting will contribute to 40 percent of the group’s total judging score, he added.
“If we hopefully win, our friend Troy Stram and his family will match our donation and donate another $1,000 to Kayla’s family as well,” Lattimer said.
“Team Kayla” supporters are not only involved in the tailgate competition.
Penn State student and childhood friend of Nakonechni, Joseph Cassaro, said he decided to hold a pasta dinner in honor of Nakonechni last Sunday with the help of his Phi Sigma Kappa fraternity brothers.
Cassaro was able to sell more than 150 dinners and raise $1,050 for Nakonechni and her family, he said.
“I wanted to get the word out to the Penn State community in the biggest way I could and help Kayla because she is definitely the most positive person I know,” Cassaro (sophomore-kinesiology) said.
“Team Kayla” shirts were also sold throughout the Penn State community to help raise money and awareness.
During Penn State’s homecoming whiteout game, “Team Kayla” whiteout shirts were sold for $10 at Old State Clothing Co., Tecce said. The shirts were sold out and more than $1,500 in proceeds were donated to the Nakonechnis, he said.
“Kayla is a huge inspiration, especially to the THON community, and shows just how close to home cancer can really hit,” friend of Nakonechni and Penn State student Lauren Tecce (junior - marketing) said. “Kayla is one of the strongest people I know and will never feel sorry for herself.”
Friends of Nakonechni said they will do whatever it takes to help plan more events in order to support Nakonechni and her family.
“As soon as we think of an idea, we will just run with it and go for it,” Lauren Tecce said.
Gabriella Santoliquito can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (814) 865-1828. Follow her on Twitter at @gmsanto3.