It goes without saying that nobody should ever have to experience being told they have an inoperable brain tumor. But there’s something especially cruel about the thought of a 16-year old being thrust into that battle.
For two summers, 16-year-old Kira Stanley had worked at Concept Surf Shop’s surf camp in Encinitas to save money for her first car. She surfed regularly with friends and on the La Costa Canyon High School surf team, was starting to set her sights on community college and life after high school, and as 2017 was starting to wrap up, she found herself painfully close to earning that driver’s license. Suddenly, in a matter of weeks, that was all put on hold. Double vision and headaches sent her to the urgent care, the ER, and her physician, all with the Stanley family thinking she just needed to update the prescription for her eyeglasses. At one point, meningitis was suspected but it wasn’t until the tests for that turned up negative that a doctor ordered an MRI.
That’s when Kira learned about Frankie, the aggressive tumor attached to her brain stem.
She’d named the cancerous tumor so it all wouldn’t seem so scary. Doctors, on the other hand, didn’t paint a particularly bright picture. In fact, Kira’s father, Robert, outlines a list of treatment options they were given and the bleak expectations that came with them. “You may lose your hair, you may lose your hearing in one or both ears—and it might kill the tumor or it might not work at all,” he remembers being told. So the Stanley family set out to find a treatment with a more positive outlook. They wanted to find something that would offer the best quality of life for Kira. That search eventually pointed them toward intra-arterial chemotherapy, an aggressive treatment method that delivers drugs directly to a tumor and reduces exposure to healthy tissues while also reducing some of the side effects that make chemotherapy so unbearable. The catch: Kira couldn’t receive this care at home in the United States and it wouldn’t be covered by the family’s health insurance. She’d have to travel to and from Monterrey, Mexico every 17-21 days from her home in Encinitas, California, and it would all cost around $350,000 for a year’s worth of treatments.
And this is when people outside the Stanley family, including local surfers, stepped up to help save Kira’s life. A GoFundMe campaign had started to build some momentum when Kira’s friends through surfing and her time working at Concept organized a fundraising event and surf contest. Everything from hand-shaped boards donated by local shops to an invitation to surf Kelly Slater’s wave in Lemoore were auctioned off. And Kira even sparked the creation of Brain Tumor Hall Pass, a social media campaign and product line with funds going to support her treatment. In just a little more than three months since November 9th, the day Kira and her family found out she was facing a war with cancer, all the support has added up to fundraising nearly $330,000.
Now mid-February, Kira’s been back and forth between Encinitas and Monterrey for five treatments. After her fourth treatment, an MRI showed the tumor was “nearly dead” — the kind of news the Stanley family wouldn’t have expected after their early visits with doctors in the States. So they all celebrate the little victories in Kira’s longterm war with Frankie.
It seems as if all the positive news and uplifting twists in an otherwise heartbreaking story seem to be following along with the way Kira’s faced it all. As if naming her tumor (and throwing it an eviction party) wasn’t charming enough, talking to the 16-year-old surfer about it all brings a refreshing breath of positivity from somebody fighting an inoperable brain tumor, let alone a teenager.
“It’s easy to get mad about things and be in a bad mood all the time but that’s not gonna help anyone,” she says about her approach. She laughs a lot while I pick her brain about the whirlwind of the past 100 or so days. She drops funny little side notes and jokes that fill the beats between those first headaches and her trips to Mexico. From the swell of community support to everything she’s learning about life, you can’t catch a hint of resentment or “why me” from Kira. “It’s kind of a blessing but it’s also the worst thing ever,” she adds. “I realize how the important things in life matter. I didn’t really realize it until I couldn’t surf, but I really love surfing.”
Kira’s story has made waves in Southern California’s news coverage, from features on local TV to newspapers. She even got a letter from Barrack Obama, sending his well wishes during a fight that’s far from over. Her double vision has gotten so bad that she’s legally blind. So, for now, it’s keeping her from doing things like surfing or getting that driver’s license she was so eager for. But when she does get back in the water, she has a road trip to Lemoore lined up. In January, Kelly himself gave Kira a personal invitation (with a plus one) to come surf his wave — not a horrible bow to tie on top of everything the day Kira and her family start celebrating the death of Frankie.
Editor’s Note: This INSPIRED feature was done with the help of our good friends at Cobian, reminding us that Every Step Matters, and of course, the very awesome and very inspiring Kira Stanley. This series looks at compelling moments, people, and places that inspire athletes to do what they do, that in turn inspire us.