Kidney cancer awareness a personal matter for Kansas softball
LAWRENCE, Kan. — Cancer comes in all shapes and sizes, and various forms can affect a multitude of people in different ways. No one's cancer story is the same, but everyone's story forges a special bond, especially during opportunities like "Jayhawks for a Cure" to support the fighters, admire the survivors and honor the taken. For Kansas head softball coach Megan Smith, the annual game to raise awareness and give back is one that is close to her heart.
In the fall of 2010, Smith began her second season at the helm of the Kansas softball program. Having moved from her husband's home state of Louisiana, Smith and her young family were just beginning to make Lawrence home, when her husband, Paul Buske, started feeling tired and couldn't explain why. A few short months later, the Smith-Buske Family would be hit with devastating news — Buske had cancer.
"The week before the 2011 season started, they removed Paul's entire kidney and had to remove some lymph nodes," Smith explained. "We found out it was cancerous, a really rare form of kidney cancer, the worst kind you could have. There's no treatment for it."
Following the news that turned life upside down for the Smith-Buske family, for the most part everything went back to normal with the help of experimental medication. Buske's prognosis wasn't good and the cancer would return, but tor the time being he was cancer-free. Buske had returned to work, taking care of the couple's young son Cooper and one of his favorite pastimes, being at the field and watching his wife fulfill her dreams on the diamond.
"Paul was an awesome guy," Smith said with a smile. "He was so unselfish, he was all about my dream and our family. He was really supportive and willing to move anywhere we needed to go for my career. When the opportunity came up to come to Kansas, his family was in Louisiana and we were at LSU, but he was super supportive and wanted to come help me build this."
Buske was able to watch Smith lay the foundation of a softball program that is continuously growing on and off the field. Each season, Smith has seen the Jayhawks reach new heights. During the second season under Smith, Kansas recorded 30 wins, a feat that she has guided KU to now for each of the last five seasons. However, Smith's first 30-win season at Kansas was bittersweet.
"The week after the  season ended, the cancer was back and he was gone within four weeks," Smith recalled. "It was really rapid and aggressive, you couldn't stop it. He chose to do chemotherapy to try, even though they knew it wouldn't help, but he just wanted to try."
After Buske passed away, Smith turned to her family away from home and her home away from home for comfort, which was Kansas softball and the diamond.
"I don't have family here, it was Paul and when he left this is all I have," Smith said. "People have been so great here, which I can never pay them back for what they've done and for being so great to my son. This is a special place."
It's still evident today how family-oriented the softball program is at Kansas, a factor that attracts many of the student-athletes that don the Crimson and Blue. Every year, Smith and the Jayhawks play for a cure and help raise cancer awareness by wearing pink, but during the 2013 season, KU softball's "Jayhawks for a Cure" game turned orange, showcasing that Kansas was behind Smith and supporting her. Orange is the color designated for kidney cancer awareness.
"Everyone is used to pink games, so I have to explain to the new student-athletes every year why we do orange instead of pink," Smith said. "It's certainly close to my heart, obviously, but anyone who has been around our program since I've been here, it's close to their heart too."
This season marks the fourth year of wearing orange and raising awareness for the type of cancer that changed Smith's life. The "Orange Game," as it's been nicknamed, continues to grow each year.
"At first we started to honor Paul, and now it's to increase awareness and to give back," Smith said. "That's our goal, we want to build it every year, so we can increase the awareness and give back to the cancer center at Lawrence Memorial, where he spent his last days. Different types of cancer affect a lot of people and this one hits close to home for me. We want to bring as much awareness as we can."
A special moment to start each "Orange Game" is when Smith's son, Cooper Smith Buske, throws out the ceremonial first pitch. With his team of big sister's behind him and his mom beside him, Cooper honors his late father.
"Cooper throwing out the first pitch is pretty special," said Smith. "He was young, he doesn't remember his dad and knows what I tell him. At the beginning, he just did it and threw out the first pitch. He knew it was for his dad and he knew why, but now he really gets it and I know it's special for him too."
In 2015, Kansas faced nationally ranked Oklahoma for its "Jayhawks for a Cure" game, the first inside the brand-new ballpark at Rock Chalk Park. KU paid tribute to Buske and all affected by cancer in the perfect way — fighting for a victory.
The Jayhawks came from behind to send the ballgame against the Sooners into extra innings before a walk-off home run in the eighth lifted Kansas past nationally-ranked OU.
"Cancer is a fight, not just for the person with cancer, but for their whole family," Smith said. "And, what a special night it was last year to face one of the best teams in the country and to fight as hard as we did. Obviously, it was great we came out with a win, but regardless of winning the game, the fight we showed was a good tribute to anybody who has been affected by cancer. It was a good tribute because we fought as hard as we could and those that are dealing with cancer are fighting as hard as they can."
Smith and the Jayhawks get another chance to pay tribute to everyone affected by cancer on Saturday, March 25, when Baylor visits Arrocha Ballpark at Rock Chalk Park for part of a three-game Big 12 Conference series.