“I figured there were way cooler ways to die than brain cancer,” says Kyle Atkinson, explaining how he found himself jumping out of a plane on his 21st birthday. “Skydiving was the coolest thing I’ll never do again in my life."
"I passed out and didn’t wake up until I was on the ground, my stomach in the gravel,” he recalls. Just days before, Kyle’s doctors had discovered a softball-sized tumor in his brain. The diagnosis explained the years of fatigue and the strange feelings that turned out to be seizures. It explained the headaches that wouldn’t go away.
That was in April, 2014. Kyle was just three days away from signing a scholarship agreement to play Division I basketball for Portland State University. His lifelong dream was within reach, and he had to let it go. He would not play competitive basketball again. Instead, he was fighting for his life.
But as dire as his diagnosis was, Kyle never entertained the thought that he might die. “You have no choice but to give everything you have to getting well,” he says. The road has not been easy. Kyle suffered a stroke during his first brain surgery, and had to use a wheelchair until he re-learned how to walk.
Today, radiation treatment and two surgeries have shrunk the tumor to the size of a quarter. “It’s inoperable where it’s at right now, so I just live with it like it’s not there,” he says. “Looking at me, you wouldn’t think I’ve been battling cancer for five years. But you don’t see the long nights of restless sleep, or the pillbox in my pocket with 30 pills in it.”
To cope with it all, Kyle has the unending support of his care team. “OHSU is where I get help,” he says. “It’s where I feel better about things. They’re all very professional and understanding. I actually like my appointment days.”
Kyle doesn’t like to dwell on the challenges of his disease, because he is relentlessly focused on staying positive and helping others find a positive mindset of their own.
When he lost his ability to play college basketball, it was a shock. But in time, Kyle realized something important.
“I don’t miss the actual playing of basketball very much,” he says. “I miss the team camaraderie. I don’t miss shooting a hoop. I miss being part of something bigger than myself.”
So with characteristic determination, Kyle figured out a way to get back what he missed the most. After his first surgery, he began volunteering for his former high school basketball coach at South Salem High School.
Five years later, he’s still helping coach the team. He works as an instructional assistant at the school, helping students with disabilities, and is working toward a degree in special education. On weekends, he travels to share his story with youth groups and sports teams.
“I want to use my experience to help others,” he says. “Most people just continue down a path of not appreciating every day and every breath. Maybe if they hear my speech, they’ll begin to see that everything we go through is a blessing.”