Even without her signature blue mohawk, Ashley Lyles is impossible to miss. Decked out in neon and glitter, her energy radiates through Rupp Arena as she makes the rounds to visit her “UK family” at the John Calipari Fantasy Experience. Watching her now, it’s hard to believe that almost two years ago, doctors only gave her five months to live.
In December 2015, Lyles, then age 35, was diagnosed with Grade IV Glioblastoma, an incurable and aggressive form of brain cancer. With the odds stacked against her, she persevered thanks to an unwavering positive attitude and the support of her friends, family, and UK Basketball. Now, she’s made it her life’s mission to help others through the Sparkle Bright Foundation.
Like many of us, Lyles measures her life by UK Basketball. Born and raised in Marshall County, she can’t remember a time she didn’t follow the Cats. In 1992 at age 11, she remembers crying on her parents’ floor after Christian Laettner hit the shot. When it came time for college, she only applied to two schools: UK and Transylvania, the latter strictly a fallback plan. At UK, she went to every game she could, including the postseason. After moving to Chicago for law school, she still followed the Cats, traveling as far as Maui, New Orleans, New York, Indianapolis, Atlanta, Miami, and Nashville to see them play. Next year’s SEC Tournament will be her 10th straight, the first being the one at the Georgia Dome when the tornado hit. Simply put, if the Cats were playing somewhere and Lyles was able to get there, she did.
That’s why it’s not surprising that the story of Lyles’ brain cancer started with a UK game. In November 2015, she and her family went to Miami for the UK/South Florida game just before Thanksgiving, stopping in Orlando first to visit with family. That’s when the headaches started. Over the next month, they just got worse. Lyles continued on with her life as an insurance litigation attorney in Chicago, but the pounding persisted; being that it was Christmastime, she joked the headaches were like having “The Little Drummer Boy” stuck in her head. Others started to notice her behavior. At a company Christmas party, her friends and coworkers grew concerned when Lyles appeared loopy and disoriented even though she hadn’t been drinking. The next day, she contemplated going to New York to see Ohio State/Kentucky in the CBS Sports Classic, but her headaches kept her at home. After watching the game and barely being able to recall what happened afterwards, she finally gave in and went to the hospital the next morning.
“I packed myself a bag and thought, ‘I’m going to go get a $10,000 Tylenol,'” Lyles laughed. “Right before I went, my gut told me something was wrong, like God was telling me, ‘Ashley, something’s wrong and it’s bad, but it’s all going to be okay.’ It’s eerie that I had this peace from the vey beginning. Something’s wrong but it’s going to be fine.”
Doctors at the hospital gave her a routine checkup and sent her home with a “migraine cocktail,” which Lyles said didn’t even take her pain from a ten to a nine. She went back in and they performed a CT scan and an MRI.
“Then, they came in and said, ‘You need to call your family.'”
Lyles’ parents came to Chicago and two days later, they performed surgery. After removing the tumor, their worst fears were confirmed; it was glioblastoma, a rare and deadly form of brain cancer most common in elderly men (John McCain was diagnosed with it this summer). Life expectancy was five months.
Kim Parks, Lyles’ close friend and co-founder of Sparkle Bright, was in the room with Ashley and her family when they found out the news, and said that her reaction is a testament to what makes her so special.
“Ashley said, ‘Is it cancer?’ Her mom, pretty much at a whisper, said, ‘It’s what they thought it was.’ Ashley choked back a tear and the next thing out of her mouth was, ‘Dad, find a Chanel store because I’m getting myself a bag.’ It was pretty funny.”
Lyles was determined to focus on the positives.
“Stats will say, only 4.7% will make it five years,” Lyles said. “There’s a 97% chance it will come back. Well, there’s a 3% chance it won’t. People ask me, ‘How do you live [knowing that]?’ Well, heck, I could get struck by lightning, I could get hit by a bus. You can’t live in fear. I decided early on that you have to look for the positive because you’re not going to make it through if you don’t.”
From there, Lyles started six weeks of intense treatment during which she had chemo every day and radiation five times a week. It was a grueling time, physically, mentally, and emotionally. Lyles admitted to succumbing to “pity parties” every now and then; however, for the most part, she was positive, which helped those around her stay strong.
“She was the most positive of us all,” Parks said. “She was keeping us sane. She was keeping us from being sad. Being around her actually made things easier because she never got down, she never felt sorry for herself. She just felt, “Well, God had a reason for me and I’m going to beat it. I’ve never been one to be the norm so why start now?'”
When Lyles’ hair started to fall out due to the radiation, she even turned that into positive, leaping on the chance to show off her love for the Cats. She and Parks went to see Drew the Barber, whom they met through their friend Nazr Mohammed in Chicago. After he cut her hair off to give make wigs for cancer patients, Lyles handed Drew a picture of Nerlens Noel’s hair the day he committed to UK and asked him to replicate it.
“The tumor was on the right side, so there was part on my left side that I didn’t lose. We shaved everything except a ‘UK.'”
Somehow, John Calipari heard about Lyles’ diagnosis in December and sent a tweet out asking Kentucky fans to pray for as she headed into surgery. In February, the team sent her a special message and vowed to win the South Carolina game for her, which they did in spectacular fashion. When her treatments were over in March, she was invited to watch the team practice at the Joe Craft Center, and Parks said the effect it had, especially on Lyles’ father, Phil, was remarkable.
“They let the three of us come in, me, Ashley, and her dad, and Ashley and her dad just had smiles on their faces,” Parks recalled. “I hadn’t seen her dad smile I don’t think, since it had all happened. I had seen Ashley smile, but not her dad. She wasn’t sick anymore that day.”
Watching the players embrace Ashley was a special moment for Parks.
“The players’ reaction to her – because it’s clear that she’s going through something, she has no hair – every player jumped up to go see her. Every one of them. Every single one was giving her hugs. It was just so sweet to see how these 18-year-old kids are jumping up to go say hi to her and talk to her.
“For all of them to be genuine about it — there wasn’t any faking it. They weren’t prepped for this. They were just immediately so warm and inviting. We walked out of there on cloud nine. Everyone was so happy. It was fun. It was finally a day that she got to feel normal.”
Buoyed by the visit, Lyles dyed the UK logo on her head blue and followed the Cats to the SEC Tournament in Nashville and the NCAA Tournament in Des Moines, Iowa. Once the season was over, she refocused on her life after cancer. It hasn’t been easy. Although she is tumor-free, Lyles suffers from short term memory loss and easily gets disoriented. She’s still not released to go back to work, so she’s filling her time with her new venture: the Sparkle Bright Foundation, a non-profit organization she and Parks founded to help others with suffering from brain cancer and brain tumors. Their goal is to provide answers to questions that Lyles found herself asking in the months following her surgery and to also ease the burden on patients and their families.
“Brain tumors and brain cancer are so complicated and there isn’t the money there like there is with other types of cancer,” Lyles said. “So, we started to think, why don’t we do something for brain tumor patients? There’s the Make a Wish Foundation, which is [for patients] 18 and under. There’s the Dream Foundation for adults, but you have to be very, very terminal. What’s something we can do to give people positive light, something to look forward to, somewhere to put all these resources, to get people in touch with what they need?”
Sparkle Bright was born, and in February, was approved as a 501(c)3 organization. Donations are tax-deductible and all money raised goes towards “Sparkles,” or acts of kindness for brain cancer and brain tumor patients. A Sparkle can be something as small as paying for the patient’s parking at the hospital or a fun experience to boost their spirits (such as a UK Basketball game), or even a trip. Anyone can nominate someone to be a Sparkle, including themselves. Nominees must be 18 years or older, live in the continental US, and have a brain tumor (to avoid fraud, the organization requires verification from a doctor). You can make donations online at SparkleBright.org.
The organization’s first two Sparkles were both Kentucky residents. Sadly, one nominee, Zach Summers, passed away earlier this month, but Sparkle Bright was able to pay for the funeral expenses and they hope to start a college fund for his four-year-old daughter, Hadley.
“The person that just passed away, he was able to do a lot of things, but by the time we were introduced, it was too far advanced,” Parks said. “When the requests came in, it was really more for the family, but they had asked that we help with funeral costs and, to the extent possible, he has a very young daughter, we are going to get a college fund started. She’s still really young, so we’ve got time. It won’t happen overnight, but hopefully over time, we can get a 529 plan or some form of vehicle to contribute annually. We’ve at least helped cover the funeral costs. Their family, that was keeping them up at night. It was at least one burden we could take off of them.”
Appropriately, the organization’s name also has a connection to UK Basketball. Lyles has always joked that glitter is her favorite color and that she was “meant to sparkle,” but the nickname really took on a life of its own at the 2016 John Calipari Fantasy Camp. Lyles — sporting a bright pink mohawk — attended as the guest of Parks, and when a performer at one of the dinners asked for volunteers to come on stage, she immediately raised her hand. When asked, she said her name was “Sparkles.”
“They get to her and she said, ‘You can call me Sparkles,'” Parks recalled. “The crowd is loving it, they’re cracking up. She’s having a blast with it. The next day, we saw Karl [Towns] at the celebrity softball game and he saw her and he screamed, ‘Sparkles, what are you doing?’ It put a huge smile on her face. We’ve run into Karl a handful of other times and he remembers her immediately.”
Lyles has gotten even closer to the UK Basketball family over the past year. She met Ellen Calipari at the UK Basketball Women’s Clinic last fall and the coach’s wife immediately took her under her wing, inviting her to sit with her at games. Parks invited Lyles to come with her to the 2017 NBA Draft as part of a package she won at the Calipari Fantasy Camp and said that when Calipari came in to the suite to say hello to everyone, he made a beeline for Lyles.
“We were at the Draft and Cal walks in and everyone wants to talk to him. He’s walking around taking pictures with people and he sees Ashely across the suite and he says, ‘Come here! I’ve gotta get a picture and send this to Ellen.'”
Parks isn’t surprised that the UK Basketball family has adopted Lyles.
“You’re never sad when you’re around her. She just has a way of lighting up a room and she always has. People just gravitate to her.”
The support from her UK Basketball family has made Lyles even more determined to help others. On Thursday, Sparkle Bright will hold “Sparkle Pong,” a charity ping-pong tournament at Killerspin House in Chicago. All proceeds will help fulfill Sparkle requests. Lyles knows firsthand how even the smallest act of kindness can give someone the extra push they need to keep fighting.
“It gives me something to look forward to,” Lyles said when asked what UK Basketball means to her. “I live for basketball. I keep up with recruiting, the draft, the players in the NBA. I just look forward to it because along my travels, I’ve met so many great people. UK Basketball is my Sparkle.”