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Sport | Health

Rangatahi cancer survivor gets exclusive interview with Michelle Obama

Kya Hurihanganui Thornicroft.

Kya Hurihanganui Thornicroft was only 13 when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, an extremely rare condition for people her age. It was a traumatic experience for her and her whānau but some good has come from it, an experience that many could only dream of.

She was granted her wish by the Make-A-Wish foundation to interview former First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama.

“It was just the most insane experience. She’s one of my all-time heroes, she’s just an icon. I came onto the zoom freaking out of course, and I was instantly calmed because she’s such a down-to-earth, genuine person and I felt like I could talk to her like she was one of my aunties,” Kya says.

During the call, they talked about what it was like for Kya to live in a rural area in Gisborne and in a small country, Aotearoa. They also talked about youth engagement in politics, a topic Kya is passionate about.

Kya was first allocated 15 minutes for the kōrero but Obama wanted to keep the conversation going.

“We ended up talking for almost an hour. I asked her about how do you stay consistent in your activism? How do you target your priorities?” says Kya.

“She answered everything and gave me the motivation and the confirmation that what I want to do is what I want to do.”

A screenshot of the Zoom call Kya had with Michelle Obama.

Kya, of Ngāti Porou and Tūhourangi, is a student at Auckland University Ngā Tauira Māori. She’s completing a double major in Māori studies and politics and international relations. She plans to work for the New Zealand Human Rights Commission or the United Nations.

“I come from a family which is very tūturu Māori and I’m an advocate for Māori rights in every way. So that led me into indigenous rights. I love the world of human rights and I love advocacy, and the United Nations has always been a goal for me.”

Kya in hospital.

Cancer journey

Kya has big goals in the face of enormous adversity. In 2020 she was diagnosed with a yolk sac tumour, a malignant tumor of cells that line the yolk sac of the embryo.

It was during the waka ama nationals when she began to experience symptoms. She was paddling for Horouta Waka Hoe Club.

“It was a clean sweep. I was on a high. I just qualified first for Hawaii worlds and I was going down to the lake to watch my brother and my dad compete, and I started having the most intense stomach-ache I’ve ever had,” Kya says.

“They took me to the emergency room at Lake Karāpiro and I was put into Waikato Hospital immediately.”

Kya with her waka ama team.

Four months of back and forth to Starship Hospital in Auckland from her home in Gisborne came next, as well as intensive rounds of chemotherapy.

“It took a big impact on me personally. During my treatment, I couldn’t walk very far. I was in a wheelchair for most of it. I lost a lot of my muscle because I had come just off being a high-performance athlete to doing absolutely nothing, no form of exercise. My body took a big shock and obviously the normal chemo effects. I lost my hair, I gained weight.”

But Kya credits her parents Erina and Nigel Thornicroft for helping her get through.

“I was very fortunate to have such an ‘onto it’ set of parents. So obviously it wasn’t easy and it was very traumatic and crazy, but I personally felt it was the best situation for me because I just did whatever my parents said. I trusted my parents completely. My mum knew everything, she was the most organised person.”

Kya and her parents Nigel and Erina.

Kya’s parents were both shocked to discover their daughter had ovarian cancer.

“It was just so unexpected. Of all the things we thought it could have been, cancer was just not one of them. And then to realise she had this massive tumour sitting inside of her. It was just unbelievable,” says Erina.

Nigel says, “I think the cancer sometimes also gave her a bit more confidence in herself because she obviously lost all her hair, and then her hair grew back and it didn’t look great for her or whatever, but she just carried on regardless of all that. And I think that gave her a bit more resilience and self-confidence in herself.”

There’s also Kya’s optimistic personality that shapes who she is.

“She’s just got a natural personality for being positive. It’s just her default personality. So her positivity I think is part of what makes her so resilient.”

Moving forward

Kya has been cancer-free for three years. She still has regular checks and she’s balancing some serious life questions.

“Since it was ovarian cancer … my span of being able to have children is different from other young people. So that’s something I’ve just got to be aware of.”

Kya is now an in-demand public speaker. She’s also an ambassador for Canteen Aotearoa, the charity supporting rangatahi with cancer. She’s part of their te ao Māori workforce group.

“We’re building on our engagement with Māori, which is a big passion for me. Canteen has honestly been the most impactful mahi I’ve done in my life and being able to give back to the organisations that help young people is so amazing.”

Ngā Tauira Māori waka team.

She also hasn’t given up on waka ama and has paddled this year for the Māori Students Association of the University of Auckland.

“It’s a real cool space to be in and I’m physically capable, I’m fully healthy. So being able to push myself in that physical way is really cool.”

Kya’s mantra is that”from your greatest challenge can come your greatest opportunity”.

“It’s definitely been my case. [There are] so many spaces, ideas, perspectives that I’ve gained from it that I don’t think I would’ve had if I hadn’t gone through that.”

But it was that kōrero with Michelle Obama that lit the fuse.

“She said the thing that you feel most passionately about, you either go shallow on many things or you go deep on that one thing you feel passionate about. And she recommended you associate yourself with the issue and you just do everything you can to do that.”