An afternoon phone call from her mother three weeks ago left Wichita State volleyball player McKayla Wuensch speechless.
After a five-year battle against breast cancer, Maribeth Wuensch was calling her daughter to inform her that she had just received word that she was cancer-free. But silence filled the other end of the conversation.
Tears streamed down McKayla’s face. The threat of losing her mother, her best friend, her inspiration was over. She didn’t know what to say in the moment, but she does now.
“It makes me realize I can do anything,” McKayla Wuensch said. “It was hard to describe in the moment because you’re overcome with all of these emotions to know that the person you’re closest with, I mean that’s my best friend, through thick and thin.
“We may fight sometimes, but that is my best friend and to know that this part is over and she kicked cancer’s (behind), it lets me know that I can do anything or be anything.”
A first-year transfer at WSU, McKayla has become the Shockers’ top setter this season with a team-high 391 assists and 5.8 assists per set. WSU coach Chris Lamb has praised her for her competitive fire and her rapid improvement in her first season being handed the keys to a college offense.
There have been challenging days as the Shockers (6-16) fight through another rebuilding season, but McKayla says no challenge is too much after watching what her mother has conquered.
It wasn’t just that Maribeth had defeated the cancer, it was in the way that she beat it.
Breast cancer has unfortunately been intertwined with the women in the Wuensch family. All three of Maribeth’s sisters have been diagnosed with it.
But that didn’t mean Maribeth was ready for the phone call in 2014 informing her that she also had breast cancer. She says the news “literally took my breath away.” A devout Catholic, Maribeth found immediate peace after saying a rosary that changed her outlook.
“It’s not about me, it was about Jesus and the power of His grace,” she said. “You can let anything consume you. Sometimes things happen that we cannot control, but what we can control is the way that we deal with it and the way that we look at it. A diagnosis like that could have caused a lot of heartache, but when you realize that’s not how we’re supposed to be, then it’s beautiful.
“I never felt like a cancer victim. I feel like I’ve been cancer-free for years.”
The Wuensch family has always been extremely close, a staple of the way Maribeth and her husband, Jeff, wanted to raise their family of five children. Following her diagnosis, Maribeth waited until the entire family could be together for a dinner before she revealed the news. She says telling her children was harder than actually receiving the news herself.
Maribeth knew the news would be frightening, especially to McKayla, the youngest of the five siblings and the only one who was still living with her parents at home, then a high school sophomore.
“Just hearing the word ‘cancer’ is sickening to me,” McKayla said. “I know breast cancer is beatable and there’s so much awareness for it these days, but still, we all cried and I was sick to my stomach.”
A long journey awaited Maribeth, including multiple biopsies, surgeries and 33 days of radiation.
Before she could know any of that, Maribeth was determined not to let her family see any trace of fear. She figured if she showed strength and confidence throughout the process, then her family would follow suit.
“The way I looked at it was that it was an agenda item on a to-do list,” Maribeth said.
“She was so strong throughout the whole thing,” McKayla recalled. “I’ve never seen someone make it as little about themselves, even though she was the one going through it. I was the only (child) home experiencing it. It was hard seeing her so tired and exhausted, but it was incredible to see how she was so selfless the whole time.”
For the past five years, Maribeth has kept a list of names of the people she has met in her journey of defeating breast cancer. The list includes the names of surgeons, members of the hospital staff, other cancer patients — people who she has prayed with and prayed for over the years.
Maribeth writes their names on ribbons, then attaches them to artificial tulips (her mother’s favorite flower). It’s a reminder to her of all the people she met because of her breast cancer that she might not have otherwise — “blessings” she calls them.
It’s things like that that make McKayla, the starting setter for the Shockers, aspire to be more like her mother every day.
“She’s a super hero,” McKayla said. “She’s my hero.”