Boise State’s Kayly Pau, in remission from leukemia, ready to go


September is Leukemia Awareness Month, and the color representing leukemia is orange. Boise State, which happens to wear blue and orange, will not only break out new orange uniforms but also will recognize junior Kayly Pau on Thursday night when it opens Mountain West play against New Mexico. We also have a video about Pau at the end of this story.

Confetti fluttered to the floor. Fans cheered. The Boise State players bounded around the floor at UNLV’s Cox Pavilion.

This was the quintessential championship celebration. The Broncos had gone from the sixth — and lowest — seed to win the Mountain West Conference championship, defeating host UNLV to claim the trophy and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid.

For Kayly Pau, it should have been one of the happiest moments of her life. But Pau, a 6-foot-4 junior outside hitter from Lodi, California, was watching the scene unfold from her apartment back in Boise, Idaho.

She was sidelined by leukemia, diagnosed in the summer of 2021.

“I’m not going to lie, it was pretty hard,” Pau said. “I am very competitive, and I knew my first year and a half here, I was doing well. I was on track to be something great. I was happy during the season when they won games. No matter what, I was super excited for them because they’re always my team.

“When they had won the conference championship … and I was watching it on the TV back in my apartment in Boise … it took a big toll on me. As much as everyone had said, ‘You are always part of the team. You helped us get here. You were a big part of this,’ it didn’t feel like that.

“Yes, I was there in the beginning. Yes, I helped aid toward some of the wins. But the celebration, the excitement of it matters.”

Now, however, Pau is having a celebration of her own. On Jan. 12, she learned that her cancer was in remission. She’s now back with the Broncos and working toward what she hopes is a repeat conference title.

“I would say my health is at 100 percent,” said Pau, a graduate of Tokay High School. “My mental state is 100 percent. My volleyball is probably about 80 and weightlifting about 70. But I’ve gotten to the point in my life that I am able to push harder and not have those setbacks.”

She’ll be in uniform Thursday when the Broncos (8-3) play New Mexico  (9-1). So far this season, she has played in five matches and has 10 kills and two blocks.

Were the symptoms from COVID?

During summer workouts in advance of the 2021 season, Pau began to feel sick. She said she felt like she had a bad cold or the flu, and food began to taste a little different.

Of course, this was still at the height of the pandemic, so she thought, perhaps, that was the problem.

She finally went to the hospital to have her symptoms diagnosed once and for all, and the staff ran a variety of tests and scans. Then came the pronouncement: leukemia.

Pau said she had heard about the disease but didn’t know much about it. She was about to learn the hard way.

“Honestly, time stood still at that point,” she said. “I had no idea what it meant. For me, the word ‘cancer’ wasn’t a good word. Then it was just a bunch of spiraling thoughts because I didn’t know what was going to be the next step.

“There were a lot of unanswered questions. For those two or three days after I got the diagnosis, it was a lot of thoughts of, what was I going to do? How is this going to affect me? Will I not be able to do the thing I came to Boise to do?”

Kayly Pau

She was able to continue with volleyball activity through the summer and into the fall. She appeared in 20 matches, playing 67 total sets and accumulating 136 kills. The year before, as a freshman, she was second on the team in kills and fourth in blocks.

But as the 2022 season — and her treatments — progressed, keeping up the pace became more difficult. Pau did her best, staying involved in practices as much as possible, though she couldn’t always finish.

Her workouts often would be modified to keep her from getting too run down, and lifting weights “would just knock me out,” she said.

“I think Kayly was exceptional with her communication with the coaching staff,” Coach Shawn Garus said. “She’s very close with the coaching staff … so we were able to support her from that perspective. But also, we wanted to support her interest in not being labeled as, ‘Oh, that’s that kid with leukemia,’ or by way of being a distraction for the team.

“I appreciated where she was coming from. But it was always with a heavy heart trying to give her the best experience she could have as a volleyball player.”

Fortunately for Pau, her leukemia was in its early stages and was highly treatable, primarily with daily medication. But, once every three weeks, she required a complete blood transfusion.

It was the transfusions, she said, that were the most difficult.

She would be bed-ridden for the first day after. By the second day, she might be able to stand up, but if she stood up too fast, she would get dizzy, at best, and sick at worst.

Fluids became the staple of her diet. A self-professed picky eater, Pau said she had a hard time finding foods she liked to begin with, let alone those that didn’t taste like metal — or nothing at all — as a result of the disease and the treatments.

By the end of October 2021, she had lost 30 pounds.

Finally, she was unable to practice or play. She wasn’t allowed to fly, so she couldn’t accompany the team on road trips. Even for some home matches, she didn’t feel well enough to leave her apartment and had to watch on TV.

Her teammates, meanwhile, knew only a fraction of what was going on. When they would question Garus about why Pau was missing practices or a road trip, he would, at Pau’s behest, keep his explanations to a minimum.

“When I first found out, I told them a week after when I had all the answers that I could give them,” Pau said. “Throughout the season, it was kind of hard because I was also trying to just battle in my head how this was going to go and also the fact that (I’m) not going to be playing volleyball that much.

“They did know a little, like I wasn’t going to be at practice or where I was going to be. But for the most part, I did not tell them everything that was going on with me.”

Garus said: “Kayly always liked to challenge me. Like, ‘I can practice today!’ And it was like, let’s not do too much. Let’s just rest and make sure we’re ready for Thursday, or something like that…. She was always willing to push it, and I appreciate that, but she also knew we were there to look after her long-term health.”

Pau stayed involved with the team any way she could. She would sit and offer encouragement during practices or matches, and she often told Garus she wanted to stand at the end of the bench during matches rather than sit.

She sent the team texts on game days – before and after matches. She joined the team in the locker room at home matches and still hung out off the court with the women who had become her closest friends on campus.

She didn’t miss any team meetings, compliance meetings or even the gathering held the night the Broncos found out they would face BYU in the NCAA Tournament. (The Broncos were swept by the Cougars in the first round.)

“Kayly didn’t communicate at that level like she was somebody we had to rally behind,” Garus said. “Didn’t want to take the focus away from, we’re a good team, let’s go win this game.”

Remission after eight months

Jan. 12, 2022, is a date Pau won’t forget. That was when she learned her cancer was in remission. It was the end of a grueling eight months.

Once all the cancer cells in her body were dead, she was able to have surgery to remove the corresponding tumor.

By February, she resumed light activity to rebuild her body for the coming season. There were baby steps at first.

In the weight room, she lifted with a wooden rod that weighed next to nothing just to ignite the muscle memory for the required movements. She eventually graduated to the metal bar, then light weights and so on.

To get her stamina back, she started on an exercise bike to rev up her heart rate. Then it was up to running.

Resuming volleyball activity was the final step. She began retraining herself to swing and incorporate all of the movements necessary to play. By April, she was back playing six-on-six in practice, and she was able to train with few to no restrictions.

“It was kind of surreal,” Pau said of returning to match action. “I was very nervous. I shouldn’t have been nervous, but I was very nervous. It felt kind of weird to me a little bit because I wasn’t on that side for a long time.

“But once I started hitting, and once I started being with the girls, it felt exactly as it did before. I was loving every minute of it.”

Garus added: “So proud of how hard she has worked to get back, and I’m so grateful as to how she puts college volleyball in perspective. She had it taken away from her. A lot of players think the days are long, the travel’s tough, I’m tired. Kayly’s got no time for any of that.

“And that’s what’s so cool, and I appreciate the effort she puts into it every day. Volleyball wise, you wouldn’t notice a whole lot of change … She is still a hell of an athlete, and I don’t think anybody would recognize that that kid had some serious challenges in being an athlete for a year and a half or so now.”

Thursday’s match features teams coming off outstanding nonconference seasons. Boise State has victories over Saint Mary’s and Notre Dame on its resume and is coming off a loss to No. 18 Washington.

The Broncos (24-11 in 2021, 10-8 in the Mountain West before catching fire in the conference tournament) lost to BYU in the first round of the NCAA tournament. There were some key graduation losses, and Boise was picked to finish third in the MWC.

Sophomore opposite Paige Bartsch, last season’s Mountain West freshman of the year, was named the MWC’s preseason player of the year, and senior outside hitter Lauren Ohlinger made the preseason all-conference team.

“We have a lot of new freshmen, and every single person who came back from last year’s team has improved tremendously,” Pau said, “and I honestly think we can pull this out.”

As for Pau, though she has recovered, this isn’t the end of her story. Having gone through the experience of battling leukemia, she wants to be able to share her trials with others and be an inspiration to anyone facing adversity.

“I kind of kept it closed because, during the season, I didn’t want to be that girl,” she said. “I didn’t want it to be that everyone knew and everyone was like, ‘Oh, she’s playing with leukemia,’ or her teammates are playing with this person. But now, since I have recovered and have gotten slowly back to where I am, I want to reach people that have had either themselves or family members … whether it be cancer or an illness or even just injury, you can survive.

“You can go through something and still be passionate about what you love and come back to it. I didn’t have to give up something that was truly important to me because I got a curveball in life.”

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