A tear balled up in the corner of Nya Kabouni’s eye when the qualifying cut was announced.
This was about more than golf.
“Excitement … nervous,” she managed. “I want to tell my parents.”
Twelve hours after her day began with radiation treatment at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, Kabouni, who shot a 108, was the final golfer to advance to the second day of the Class 4A Narrows League girls golf tournament at Lake Spanaway Golf Course.
“It’s a full day in itself, and to go through what she has to — she gets up pretty early to get up to Seattle and come back here,” Yelm golf coach Kaelen Moore said. “And she’s still happy Nya. She’s amazing.”
It’s a common account of the 15-year-old freshman at Yelm Middle School. Nothing appears to be wrong.
“That’s what most people say,” her mother, Kasandra Jaquez, said.
‘The worst day of our lives’
Doug and Kasandra Jaquez had news for their daughter. Bad news.
On Oct. 31, 2013, Kabouni was diagnosed with a signet ring carcinoma, a form of colon cancer. She endured severe stomach pain for six weeks before she was admitted to Swedish Hospital in Seattle.
“She was in so much pain that she was just screaming and my husband took her to the emergency room,” Kasandra said. “They finally decided to take her and send her to Swedish. They kept treating her for constipation, and I guess it progressively kept getting worse and growing in there over the month.”
A 12-centimeter tumor had been growing in Kabouni’s abdomen.
“They said, ‘This does not feel right,’ because they could feel the tumor and it was the size of a grapefruit,” she said.
Doctors gave Kabouni only weeks to live.
“It was the worst day of our lives,” Doug said.
“It was, ‘Our daughter’s about to go,’” Kasandra added. “…We didn’t even have time to prepare. It just went into really fast mode of getting in, getting the tumor out and coming up with a plan. … We decided, as parents, we weren’t going to listen to the doctors as far as the negative side of it, and we always tried to stay positive for her.”
Doug insists his daughter was stronger than he was when the news was relayed to her, but it still brought Kabouni to tears.
“She was asking if she was going to die,” Kasandra said. “We just told her she wasn’t going to die.”
The tumor was removed around Thanksgiving, and Kabouni went through a six-month cycle of chemotherapy. Which, by all accounts, worked.
Kabouni’s final treatment was in June 2014. Her brother, Danny, uploaded a video to Instagram from her hospital room, documenting the occasion.
“We out here! Last chemo! We did it!” he says in the video.
“I was overwhelmed,” Kabouni said. “I was like, ‘I really fought it.’”
The doctors told Doug and Kasandra their daughter was cancer free. The family threw a party for the community to celebrate.
“They told us, pretty much 100 percent, we were in the clear and that we could move forward,” Kasandra said. “So that’s what we believed.”
She didn’t want to be known as the girl with cancer.
“It was weird because it was my first year of middle school,” Kabouni said. “I felt like I would be known as the cancer girl, but everybody got to know me, and it became great.”
Kabouni returned to Yelm Middle School following her initial surgery. She was 13 years old, in seventh grade at the time.
When she lost her hair from the chemo, the school held a head-shaving ceremony in the art room. It holds hat days — Kabouni is the only student allowed to wear hats on a daily basis — that have helped raise funds for her treatment.
Moore said one hat day brought in over $1,000. Students brought in $3 to wear a hat for a day.
“The school has totally embraced it,” Moore said. “It’s amazing how kids work and how they can be.”
There are also T-shirts with Kabouni’s social media hashtag, #NyaStrong, that are circulating the community. A piece of paper with the hashtag written on it is taped to the window of the school’s front office.
“She has an impact on so many lives without knowing it,” said Mary Rivera, Kabouni’s home-room teacher. “She would have anyway, but just so many of us.”
School is a haven for Kabouni. She gets straight A’s, despite missing the first three periods of school every day for radiation. She’s in Moore’s physical education class, and he said she wants to run the mile just like everyone else.
“Every time I see her, she’s usually smiling,” he said. “Here at school, she’s either really good at masking it, or that’s just how she is. She’s going to power through it and be a normal kid. … I don’t know how she powers through it some days.”
“I don’t, either,” Rivera said. “She’s super inspirational. … I think the alternative is to let it defeat you and crawl into a ball and whatever. She’s just not that kind of a person. Her spirit is indomitable, really.”
‘It came back worse’
Italy was everything Kabouni imagined — the water, the gondolas, the buildings. Her family toured Europe through the Make-A-Wish Foundation last year.
“I’ve always wanted to fulfill my life, I’ve always wanted to travel,” she said. “…Nothing can stop me.”
When the family returned from the trip last fall, the cancer returned, too.
“She was cancer-free for a year, and almost to the date, it came back,” Kasandra said. “And it came back worse.”
It spread to Kabouni’s liver and spleen, and she was scheduled for another surgery.
“They scraped out all of the cancer and put heated chemo in me and swirled me around,” Kabouni said. “It got all of the cancer out, but I still have this one spot.”
Another tumor — smaller this time, but inoperable, Doug said. Kabouni started chemo again, but her doctor stopped it to avoid further stress on her body. She now takes a chemo pill, and attends radiation five days per week.
The day starts at 4:45 a.m. and ends when Kabouni returns home from school or practice.
“I don’t know how she does it,” Kasandra said. “How she gets up that early in the morning, and then goes to school and runs the track a mile trying to beat people, and then golf.”
“She’s tired,” Doug said. “She admits she’d rather play nine holes than 18 holes, because 18 is tough on her.”
But Kasandra said the family tries to focus on normalcy, not cancer. Kabouni wants a blue convertible Volkswagen bug for her 16th birthday in September. She’s started thinking about golf camp and college scholarships.
“(Cancer) doesn’t come up,” Kasandra said. “We plan the future, we talk about her car. We just don’t talk about any negative part of it.”
Trading in a bat for a club
Kabouni wears a black Nike golf hat, polos and skirts now, but it wasn’t always that way. She started playing softball when she was 8 years old.
“Immediately I loved it,” she said.
Treatments and loss of muscle prevented her from continuing to play.
“I decided, ‘You know what? I’m going to work myself back up to it, but I’m going to play golf instead right now,’” Kabouni said. “Golf sounded fun and I couldn’t do any too vigorous sports, so I gave up softball.”
Her relationship with golf is, well, like most other golfers’ relationship with the sport.
“The first time I played golf, I thought it was going to be boring, and I thought it was going to be easy,” Kabouni said. “Very wrong about both. It is the hardest thing I could ever think of. I get so mad at myself because I want to get better.”
But on the course is the only time Moore thinks he’s seen her upset.
“She’s her every day, always positive,” he said. “The only time I see her mad is out on the golf course because she wants to be good. … She’s got the drive in anything she does.”
Moore gave his athletes pink golf balls to support Kabouni before a match against Timberline. Kabouni wasn’t given any, but bought some of her own to match.
“Coach told us with our Sharpies to write ‘Nya’ on our balls, and we all did,” freshman Maddie Ford said.
Kabouni was surprised.
“Did no one ever tell you that?”
“No,” Kabouni said.
Kabouni takes her clubs home on the weekend, stays focused at practice and sometimes drags Doug to the driving range. She earned a varsity spot midway through the season, and eventually qualified for 4A Narrows League tournament.
“It’s just really cool, the fact that we’ve never played before and we’re freshmen and we made it this far,” said freshman Billie Reeves, who was part of Kabouni’s four-player group on Tuesday. “She has come a long way, I’m really proud of her. She has definitely tried really hard.”
Kabouni said she felt some cramping from radiation shortly after the nine-hole turn, but continued to play.
“She’s a trooper,” Reeves said. “I’m just so proud of her, with everything she’s done. She’s such a strong person. Go Nya.”
Kabouni finished with three bogeys on hole Nos. 16, 17 and 18 to push her final score to 108.
“I feel like I can make it,” she said. “If they can do it, than I can do it.”
It was a long day. She was tired. But there is a tomorrow.