Winning matches and beating cancer: Kayly Pau’s battle with leukemia

Claire Keener | The Arbiter

Cancer did not stop Kayly Pau from doing what she loves.

Junior outside hitter Kayly Pau joined the Boise State volleyball team from Tokay High School in Lodi, California, three years ago. During her high school career, Pau was a three-time all-league honoree and named her conference MVP as a senior.

Pau has one start and played in all 15 games during her first season. Her first appearance as a Bronco was against San Jose State on Feb. 4, 2021. She recorded 11 kills and four blocks to finish with 13.5 points.

“I thought that Lauren (Ohlinger) and Kayly (Pau) performed really well for us,” volleyball head coach Shawn Garus said after the game. “They were strong offensively, but they also did a good job defensively as well getting up for the block to cause problems for their setter.”

She continued to perform at a high level throughout the season, recording 140 kills, 35 blocks and 159 points. She also averaged 2.55 kills per set, 0.64 blocks and 2.89 points.

However, while getting ready for her second season, Pau faced a road bump that would completely change her life.

Battling cancer on and off the court

Pau was diagnosed with leukemia in June 2021. 

“One night, I was just constantly getting sick,” Pau told Bronco Sports. “I couldn’t sleep, so I decided to go to the hospital where they ran some tests on me and saw that my blood levels were all out of control … When they said, ‘we think you have leukemia,’ it was kind of just like a moment of silence.”

After receiving the news about the diagnosis, Pau turned to her doctors at home in Lodi, California, to help her come up with a plan to balance her top priorities: her long-term health and her volleyball career.

Pau was fortunate enough to get an early leukemia diagnosis and was able to start treatment before it reached a terminal stage.

“I would go in and get chemotherapy which would knock me out for about three to four days,” Pau told Bronco Sports, “but I knew if I were to stop and give this treatment my all I would lose all of my volleyball within an instant. So, I decided I’m going to split both. I’m going to keep going until they tell me I can’t or my body just fails. I would take my treatment on a Friday or Saturday so that my off days would be correlated with my volleyball off days.” 

Pau said she had played volleyball for many years prior to her diagnosis and was not ready to give up on her passion that quickly.

“I’m here and this is my dream to be here,” Pau said about playing volleyball at Boise State. “I wasn’t going to let this illness stop me because everyone thinks … you’re starting to just kind of dwindle down and everyone’s starting to empathize with you. I didn’t want that. I wanted to know that I’m not going to let this stop my dream … I worked too hard to get to this point that something so little, yet so big, wouldn’t take over my life.”

Pau devised a game plan with her team and coaches after she decided she was not going to give up on her volleyball career, despite the diagnosis.

“When I learned about Kayly’s illness, I did not know what it meant,” Garis said. “I have not dealt with that before with a player.”

[Photo of outside hitter Kayly Pau during the Boise State volleyball team’s match against Santa Clara.]
Claire Keener | The Arbiter

Playing volleyball and going through cancer treatment turned out to be easier said than done. In order to do both, Pau and the team had to make sacrifices and adjustments for their plan to work.

Pau would only play one game a day throughout the preseason. As the preseason progressed, Pau was only allowed to play once on the weekends. These limitations did not stop Pau from trying to sneak into drills, according to associate head coach Candy Murphy.

“There would be times where [Garus] would make her stay on the sidelines and he would not even let her dress,” Murphy told Bronco Sports. “He would tell her, ‘You are coming in sweats. You are coming in flip flops.’”

Practices were not any easier to manage. 

“Dealing with treatment along with practice was a little hard,” Pau said. “There were Mondays where I felt great, and there were Mondays where I did not feel great.”

Pau and the coaches tried their best to get her all of the practice and training she needed while also being flexible with her schedule. Despite both parties being very cooperative with each other there were times that they would ‘butt heads,’ according to Pau.

“I think it was a challenge for her,” said assistant coach Hayley Peterson about Pau in a Bronco Sports video. “I think coach Garis did a really good job [because] we wanted her to be healthy, that was our priority. We wanted her to be able to come to matches and be there and be present.”

A challenging season

Pau and the team found success throughout the 2021 season despite the troubles they faced.

The team was aware of Pau’s situation but was not informed of all of her struggles. Pau wanted the team’s performance to be the focal point of the season instead of her leukemia, according to Pau and Murphy.

“There were times we landed and [Pau] went straight to the hospital,” Murphy told Bronco Sports. “Nobody knew about that except our staff. She literally battled her way back to be on the court.”

The team had their second-best start in program history after holding a nine-game win streak and going 11-1 overall. The team also pulled off the largest upset in program history after defeating No. 10 University of Utah.

“You know, we’ve played ranked teams before, but I don’t know if we have beaten anybody as high as [No.] 10,” Garus told the media after defeating Utah. “It’s just confidence building for all the players and it validates all their hard work, and should motivate them to keep working for more.”

The team went on to win the Mountain West Championship and earned a spot in the NCAA Tournament. The team was eliminated in the first round of the tournament by No. 11 BYU.

Pau was not able to play in the last 11 games of the season because of her treatments, but recorded 136 kills and 40 blocks in two starts and 20 appearances. She was also named to the Boise State Classic All-Tournament Team after helping lead the team to wins over Santa Clara University and Oregon State.

“I’m thrilled with the 3-0 victory,” Garus said. “I thought it was a bit of a grind. Santa Clara came out and did some things that stressed us a little bit early. Some of our key players didn’t get off to good starts offensively. So it’s great to see people like Kayly Pau step up and fill the void for some of the others when we needed her too.”

More than a match, more than a win

Pau was declared cancer-free in spring 2022.

She is now focused on feeling 100%, and playing 100% this season and has made appearances in six games. 

“I love this game 10 times more, and my passion [and] drive has increased tremendously,” Pau told Bronco Sports. “To me, it wasn’t that I was going through something, it was that I was missing out on my full potential and that I decided to make my own story. I decided to choose my own fate … I did everything I could, knowing how far my limits were, and honestly, after going through all this, the sky is really the limit.”

To honor her fight against leukemia, the team hosted a Leukemia Awareness Night against New Mexico on Sept. 22. Fans were advised to wear orange, the color for leukemia awareness.

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