By Loretta Stafford
Childhood friends Zach Major, Kayne Finley, Keagan Finley, and Austin Major
On the heels of graduation, many new alumni look forward to spending the summer traveling, learning about the world and themselves in the process. However, this summer’s travels hold special significance for two spring 2019 UK grads.
Zach Major, a physical therapy student in the University of Kentucky College of Health Sciences who recently graduated with his B.A. in environmental and sustainability studies from the College of Arts and Sciences, and Robby Larson, who earned his degree in neuroscience from the college as well, will join former UK swim team member Keagan Finley on a cross-country bike ride. The team will make “Cannonballs Across America” as they embark on a 40-day, 4,000-mile ride to raise awareness — and $1 million in donations — for one of the most fatal types of pediatric cancer: diffuse intrinsic pontine glioma (DIPG).
From May 17 through July 3, the team will rally support for DIPG research and treatment by making frequent stops at hospitals, schools, churches and swim clubs as they complete their journey.
Along the way, they will share the story of Kayne Finley, the younger brother of Keagan and lifelong friend of Zach and Robby. In November of 2016, just two months after his 17th birthday, Kayne was diagnosed with stage 4 DIPG. The diagnosis came after weeks of puzzling symptoms: loss of hearing, balance and taste, persistent headaches, dehydration and nausea.
After spending Christmas and New Year’s participating in targeted radiation therapy, Kayne was eventually transferred to Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to participate in a targeted protein inhibitor clinical trial. For months, Kayne and family traveled back and forth from their home in Daytona Beach to Cincinnati for treatment.
In May of 2017, Kayne was invited by Governor Matt Bevin to be the featured speaker at the State Capitol for a special event declaring May as Brain Tumor Awareness Month and proclaiming May 17 as DIPG Awareness Day.
Only about 300 patients are diagnosed with DIPG in the U.S. each year, and the median survival rate is just 11 months. While the prognosis was bleak, Kayne persisted, pursuing his dream to attend veterinary school at Louisiana State University. In his own words, Kayne decided it was time to “just live his life.”
At LSU, though his disease had progressed to the point he could no longer walk, Kayne physically attended classes every day with the help of a medical scooter. During this time, he continued to advocate for increased attention and funding for childhood cancers, especially DIPG.
Kayne passed away in November of 2017, after exactly one year and one day of knowingly living with DIPG. This summer, Kayne will serve as the fourth “angel rider” during the Cannonballs Across America journey.
After nearly a year of seeing Kayne persist through a different type of endurance ride, Zach and Robby pitched the idea of a cross-country bike-a-thon to the Finley family. Their goal was to honor Kayne’s legacy while spreading awareness of DIPG brain cancer and inspiring others to fight for a cure.
"To be 20-something years old and have the passion to bicycle across the country for a cause bigger than you is simply inspiring,” said Kirsten Finley, Kayne and Keagan’s mother, and director of the Cannonballs for Kayne Foundation.
Fast forward 18 months and the inaugural Cannonballs Across America ride is here. The route was carefully planned to include stops at hospitals where the crew can visit with DIPG patients and research labs where they can learn more about how scientists are working towards a cure. The excursion will take them to several locations of note: Stanford University’s Monje Lab; Cincinnati Children’s Hospital where Kayne participated in clinical trials; through the UK HealthCare DanceBlue Clinic; to Baton Rouge, Louisiana where Kayne attended LSU; and finally, the trip will end in Daytona Beach, Florida, where the Finleys currently reside.
Throughout the ride, they will be assisted by a support crew of fellow swimmers: Jack Laughlin, former Daytona Beach Speed swimmer, and Kendra Crew, former captain of the UK swimming and diving team.
Before his passing, Kayne shared a message that the team wants everyone they encounter this summer to hear loud and clear:
“I hope that with all the people that know my name and diagnosis (DIPG brain cancer), I can be a beacon of inspiration worldwide. Please educate yourself and others about DIPG and help us fight for and develop a cure. Every single person makes a difference.”
For more information on Cannonballs Across America, including a vlog with trip updates throughout the summer, visit www.cannonballsacrossamerica.org. To learn more about the Cannonballs for Kayne Foundation and how it is helping DIPG patients across the nation, visit www.cannonballs.org.
UK is the University for Kentucky. At UK, we are educating more students, treating more patients with complex illnesses and conducting more research and service than at any time in our 150-year history. To read more about the UK story and how you can support continued investment in your university and the Commonwealth, go to: uky.edu/uk4ky. #uk4ky #seeblue