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Penn State mourns Thon volunteer, dancer, child Kayla Nakonechni

Kayla Nakonechni laughs as she chats with Jay Paterno during the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Nakonechni danced in THON, and now is a Four Diamonds child as she battles astrocytoma.
Kayla Nakonechni laughs as she chats with Jay Paterno during the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon on Saturday, February 22, 2014 at the Bryce Jordan Center. Nakonechni danced in THON, and now is a Four Diamonds child as she battles astrocytoma. CDT photo

Penn Staters shared their tears with Kayla Nakonechni at Thon 2015, and they’ll do it again with the news that the Thon volunteer, dancer and child died Wednesday.

When Nakonechni was diagnosed with brain cancer Aug. 20, 2013, however, she made a rule with her family.

“The day we received her diagnosis of glioblastoma she showed amazing strength, and her tears only started coming when she saw us crying,” her mother, Jeanne Nakonechni, said in a speech at Thon 2015. “On our ride home she told me that she was establishing a rule, and it was that no one was allowed to cry within 10 feet of her. I told her I wasn’t sure if that was possible.”

Smiles, instead, dominated the Nakonechni family around Kayla, whose contagious pearly whites shined as her mother spoke.

“Believe it or not,” her mother said earlier this year, “we have followed that rule to this day.”

Sorrow, however, struck the Thon community as Kayla’s family confirmed on social media that she died.

“There are no words that can possibly describe the overwhelming sadness that comes with the news of Kayla’s passing,” the post said. “Just after 12:30 this morning, in her home and surrounded by family, Kayla passed away peacefully and without pain. We cannot begin to thank the Carbondale and Penn State communities for the unbelievable support during this time and over the past three years. It is truly incredible to see how many lives she touched with her kindness, determination, and love.”

Arrangements for a viewing Sunday afternoon and evening and for a funeral Monday in Carbondale will be made.

“We were incredibly saddened to wake up and hear the news of Kayla’s passing this morning,” Thon public relations director Lily Beatty said. “Kayla ... touched the lives of many throughout the Thon community both during through her involvement as a student and as a Four Diamonds child. Our thoughts are with the Nakonechni family and friends and the entire Four Diamonds community as we mourn the loss of another life taken too soon by childhood cancer.”

Kayla’s social media presence told a story, one of strength in the face of a fatal disease. She documented her battle against cancer in a blog she appropriately titled “Life is tough, but I’m tougher.”

The first pictures posted on the blog were of her smiling. Upbeat blog posts with pictures of her smiling kept coming, and her announcement of the diagnosis was simple and telling of her attitude.

“The doctors were not expecting that, but who could predict that?” she said in a Aug. 31, 2013, post. “The signs were really not there for this type of malignant tumor. The tumor was all removed with the surgery though, which is great news ... Now we just need to meet the oncologist to ... learn the treatment.”

Kayla, who danced for 46 hours in Thon 2013 as an independent dancer, became a Blue Band Thon child.

The most difficult day, her mother said, was when Kayla realized she would not be able to attend school for the first semester of her senior year.

“What was most upsetting to her was that she would not be able to participate in Thon,” Jeanne Nakonechni said. “Kayla broke down and cried. It was the only time she really cried throughout this entire experience.”

Kayla, in a show of defiance, graduated with a Penn State degree in biology in December 2014 and planned to attend medical school.

In her speech at Thon 2015, Kayla talked about dancing in Thon, about volunteers’ impact on her and about being on the other side of the spectrum.

“All I thought about was how I’d beat this,” she said. “The plan was to beat chemo for six weeks with 30 rounds of radiation.”

She did.

She beat cancer for 785 days from the time she was diagnosed.

“Thon has been my inspiration throughout this entire journey,” Kayla said at Thon 2015. “It fills me with hope. It fills me with strength. It shows me that I’m not alone in this fight ... I always heard what it meant to the kids of Thon, but now I know what it personally means. It’s an opportunity to forget stress and enjoy time my adoptive organization, the Blue Band.”

Her words should not be forgotten.

“All we can do now is focus on the present hope and pray for the future,” Kayla said. “My life is still mine. It is not run by cancer by any means.”

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