Finley family creates a scholarship in memory of their Fighting Tiger
But Kayne Finley was diagnosed with a rare pediatric brain tumor at 17 years old, and his time at LSU was brief.
Finley passed away at 18 on Nov. 24, 2017.
His fate only led his family to fight hard to honor his dreams. They worked to establish the Nathaniel “Kayne” Finley College of Agriculture Endowed Scholarship, and it was awarded to a College of Agriculture student for the fall semester.
“Through their loss, the Finleys are able to provide an opportunity for students, and it’s a beautiful way to honor their son’s legacy,” said Leslie Blanchard, former assistant dean of the College of Agriculture. “He was a pretty special student.”
The scholarship awards $1,000 to a non-Louisiana resident who is a full-time freshman in animal sciences, agricultural business or agricultural and extension education. Primary consideration is given to Florida and Kentucky residents and then to animal sciences majors.
Creating an endowed scholarship versus an annual scholarship was important to the family. They wanted it to could be given in perpetuity. It is also an opportunity for those who knew Kayne to donate to his scholarship.
The goal is to have a total gift of $30,000 within the next few years.
Finley’s freshman year was challenging as he battled diffuse intrinsic pontine gliomas, a fast-growing tumor found at the base of the brain. It affects some of the body’s most vital functions — breathing, heart rate and blood pressure.
The tumors are difficult to treat, and patients that are diagnosed have a median survival rate of less than one year. It is rare that DIPG affects a 17-year-old as it is typically found in children ages 5 to 9 with an average of 300 children diagnosed each year.
While there are over 120 different types of childhood brain tumors, DIPG is the most underfunded, the least researched and the most aggressive in children, according to Cannonballs for Kayne, the foundation founded by Finley.
“Kayne just wanted to go to school and truly be a student and to graduate, and that’s the biggest part of carrying out his legacy,” said Keagan Finley, Kayne’s older brother, who is transferring to LSU this fall as a junior studying accounting. He will join the LSU swim team as a distance freestyler.
Both brothers grew up swimming and continued with their passion in college. Kayne was the LSU assistant swim team manager, and Keagan swam at Florida State University.
The Finley family’s intention to carry out Kayne’s legacy has shown through their innovative ideas to help spread awareness of DIPG.
Kayne founded the Cannonballs for Kayne Foundation because he wanted to help find a cure, and he felt strongly about sharing of information within the medical profession, said Kirsten Finley, Kayne’s mother.
The foundation provides research grants for hospitals. For families of a person suffering from DIPG, the foundation provides financial assistance based on social worker recommendations.
In June, the foundation’s first grant of $30,000 was awarded to Cincinnati Children's Hospital and medical principal investigator Dr. Rachid Drissi of the Brain Tumor Center to better understand the radiation therapy response in DIPG. The research will study Kayne’s tumor tissue.
Kayne’s autopsy revealed he had the primary mutation H3 K27M, which is the main mutation among patients with DIPG. Although studies show this specific mutation is resistant to radiation, the standard treatment of radiation has not changed for over 45 years, Kirsten Finley said.
The family plans to fully fund the cost of the study, which is $150,000, through a campaign called Cannonballs Across America, which includes a 40-day, 4,000-mile bicycle ride by four men, including Keagan, beginning on May 17, which is DIPG Awareness Day.
From San Francisco to Daytona Beach, the team will average around 100 miles per day and will meet with churches, hospitals and swim teams to reach their goal of raising $1 million for the Cannonballs for Kayne Foundation.
Brain cancer is the top cause of death by disease in children, and the amount of money that goes toward childhood cancer research is minuscule compared to adult cancer research. Only 4 percent of federal government cancer research funding goes to study pediatric cancer, according to the National Pediatric Cancer Foundation.
An opportunity to make waves in the realm of childhood cancer arose when Finley’s mother met Sandra Tillman, the mother of Devon Tillman, a sophomore at LSU who passed away from the rare cancer Ewing Sarcoma.
The two flew to Washington, D.C., for a week and met with members of the House of Representatives to advocate for the Childhood Cancer STAR Act. Finley spent the latter part of the week working to recognize May 17 as National DIPG Day. Currently, 31 states recognize DIPG Awareness Day, including Louisiana, Kentucky, and Florida.
The House of Representatives unanimously passed the Childhood Cancer STAR Act on May 22, 2018, calling it “the most comprehensive childhood cancer bill to ever pass Congress.”
The Star Act authorizes $30 million annually from 2019 to 2023 for childhood cancer programs and research through the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The bill requires the National Cancer Advisory board to have at least one member who specializes in pediatric oncology.
For a family who lives to give back, success seems to follow the Finleys in every project.
The Cannonballs for Kayne Foundation has raised $130,000, with net proceeds of more than $68,000 in its first year.
“There’s lots of foundations out there people can choose from, but the thing about the Cannonballs Foundation is that it’s an emerging foundation striving for excellence in research for the next generation,” Kirsten said.
From their house in Ormond Beach, Florida, the family continues to fight for DIPG awareness by constantly updating the Cannonballs for Kayne’s Facebook page and website with events and cancer research information.
Cannonballs for Kayne is hosting a softball tournament at LSU on Oct. 6. The event will have a jambalaya and fundraising competition. For further information, visit www.facebook.com/CannonballsForKayne.
Writer: Hannah Venerella