They say that playing a sport builds character, but UB’s Kaite Burawski shows us that sometimes it’s character that builds champions. Her remarkable journey began long before she faced the unimaginable — a battle with ovarian cancer — and her tenacity through the trial exemplifies a person whose achievements are sure to keep growing long after her tale of survival is a mere footnote in her story.
Kaite, a starting pitcher on UB’s softball team donning #17 on the mound, had her sights set on playing UB softball and studying Dental Hygiene from a young age. Her long-time pitching coach, George Pechin, noted that Kaite has always been sure about two things. “She’s always told me, ‘All I care about is softball and teeth.’”
Softball and teeth
For many first-year college students, much of the college experience is defined by exploring options and planning for what a future career might look like. For Kaite, she began her UB journey with a clear vision for her future — her college softball career would be followed by a long and fulfilling career in the dental field. That future picture was coming into focus for Kaite until the winter 2022, after an extended battle with a mystery illness resulted in an unthinkable diagnosis.
Kaite earned her associate degree in Dental Hygiene in May 2022. She returned to UB that fall to complete her bachelor’s degree while working as a dental hygienist and playing softball for the Purple Knights. Unfortunately, cancer put Kaite’s goal of finishing out her senior year on hold, as she was forced to turn from facing off against opposing batters to facing off against her own body. Her new opponent was a mass on her left ovary, approximately 15 cm in diameter — an elusive form of cancer that most commonly affects women in their 50s and 60s.
Katie’s experience as an athlete meant she was highly in tune with her body, and so she recognized when things didn’t feel right. Fortunately, doctors were able to diagnose her cancer early enough to ensure her chances of survival. Still, it may very well have been her determination to get back on the pitching mound that helped her not only fight but survive.
Growing up and playing softball in Delaware
Kaite’s hometown of Hartly, Delaware, is the smallest town in Delaware. In 2020, the 37-acre village was home to just 73 people, including Kaite. Having grown up in such a small community, it’s no surprise that she developed the ability to seek out opportunities for herself proactively. As an athlete and with the support of her family, she joined travel teams, played for neighboring towns, and even played Little League Baseball when softball wasn’t available to her.
Kaite began her career as a pitcher at nine years old. At 12, she joined a travel softball team called the Delaware Express — a highly competitive fast-pitch softball league that allowed her to play throughout the region. In addition to travel ball, Kaite played with her middle school and, later, her high school teams.
Kaite will tell you that UB’s coach, Dawn Stearns, found her through travel ball, but in reality, it was Kaite who found coach Dawn. “I had known I wanted to study Dental Hygiene since high school. When I looked up Dental Hygiene schools with softball programs, I found UB. I started emailing Coach Dawn during my sophomore year of high school. I think I emailed her three or four times a week until I could get her to come and watch me play,” she said.
“She was determined to get my attention,” coach Dawn recalls. “I saw her in tournaments a few times, and she was the real deal. Even to this day, she is a strong self-advocate. She’s very big on being vocal.”
Coach Dawn saw Kaite play during her sophomore year of high school. That following summer, leading into her junior year, Kaite toured UB for the first time, and she committed to playing softball for the Purple Knights soon after.
Much like her love for softball, Kaite began pursuing her passion for dentistry early — studying dental assisting at her technical high school before enrolling at UB. When asked why she chose dental hygiene as a career, Kaite found herself at a loss for words. “I always struggle to answer this question,” she said. “When I went to the dentist growing up, I always really liked it.” For her, it’s always been about softball and teeth.
Pitching for University of Bridgeport
Kaite describes leaving for college as “an adjustment.” The transition to college can be difficult for anyone, but as a student-athlete, the additional pressure of balancing an athletic schedule with academic responsibilities can be challenging. “I was on my own and four hours away from home. I’ve always been a straight-A student, but I remember panicking my first semester freshman year after almost getting a ‘C’ in math,” said Kaite.
Kaite’s determination to see her goals through is complimented by her extraordinary organizational skills, which have made her a leader and role model on and off the field. Ever-humble, Kaite credits her teammates for helping her manage the transition to life as a college athlete. “I didn’t feel alone. There was always someone there,” she reflected. She is still close with the ten other softball players who joined the team with her during their first year at UB.
After 13 games that first year, the COVID-19 pandemic led to the cancellation of the remainder of that season.
Despite a shortened first season, Kaite achieved incredible success as a D-II pitcher upon her return to the mound. In 2021, She led the entire Division II in the country for the most strikeouts. “She’s by far the best pitcher we’ve ever had here at UB,” remarked Coach Dawn.
The canceled season, along with her redshirt year after taking a season off for cancer treatment, gives Kaite two more softball seasons to compete as a Purple Knight. This also means she has two more years to take advantage of UB’s academic offerings; she’s even considering using the extra time to pursue a double major in Psychology.
“There were a lot of things going on leading up to my cancer diagnosis, but I didn’t put it all together right away.”
In September 2022, Kaite began experiencing a series of mysterious illnesses. She would get cold and flu-like symptoms, or high fevers that wouldn’t go away. Her energy levels suffered significantly. As someone who never needed daily naps, Kaite began to require them to get through her day. “I was always tired,” she said.
Doctors told her she had an unnamed viral infection that would go away on its own, but it kept happening. “I had to go to urgent care with random illnesses that no one could diagnose throughout that fall,” recalled Kaite.
On Thanksgiving night of 2022, Kaite was laying on the couch after dinner and she began experiencing severe abdominal pain. That pain resolved itself, but after returning to school, she noticed a recurring ache in her pelvis. “I was lying in bed one night, and I was feeling my abdomen, and I actually felt the mass,” said Kaite.
Before going home for Christmas that winter, she experienced a fever that lasted more than 14 days. When she went home for Christmas, she was seen by her primary care provider, who sent her for an ultrasound. The ultrasound tech could not find Kaite’s left ovary, and soon after Kaite’s doctor called and urged her parents to take her to the emergency room.
That trip to the ER led to Kaite’s cancer diagnosis.
Two days later, Kaite went into surgery to have the mass — a 15 cm tumor that was encasing her left ovary — removed.
It was not until the following week that Kaite and her family learned the mass was cancerous. “The scariest part in all this was that he had told me that, in his 20 years of being a doctor, he had never seen this before.” Despite the size of the tumor, Kaite’s ovarian cancer was only stage 1 — treatable with chemotherapy after removing the tumor.
“I had to call and tell coach Dawn,” shared Kaite. “That was hard.”
Undergoing cancer treatment
When asked what it was like to tell people about her cancer diagnosis, Kaite reflects that she was just worried about getting back to the softball field. She was concerned about losing time on the pitching mound to focus on her chemotherapy treatments. Thankfully, Coach Dawn reassured her that she would not lose what was supposed to be her senior year of softball. She would still get to come back and play after she got healthy again.
It might be challenging for some to understand how Kaite was able to remain so focused on softball, but it seems as though it was that very resolve that helped her manage her cancer treatment. In fact, she was so determined to push through the ordeal and remain ready to play for her team that she continued lifting weights throughout the treatment. Her doctor even suggested that movement and strength training were helping her body withstand the harsh chemotherapy.
Kaite began her chemotherapy treatment back at home in Delaware on January 23, 2023. During this time, she reconnected with her long-time pitching coach, George Pechin, also a cancer survivor. The two maintained regular communication throughout Kaite’s treatment, with Pechin able to relate to her daily struggles and offer his own advice on how to manage them. He even encouraged Kaite to watch cooking shows on TV to keep her appetite up after chemotherapy sessions.
Kaite finished chemotherapy in the spring of 2023. On April 21, 2023, while driving up to Bridgeport with her family to watch what was supposed to be her “senior night” double-header games, they received the call that she was officially in remission. During the team huddle before their first game, Kaite got to tell her teammates that she was cancer-free. UB won one and lost one that night, but the news of Kaite’s cancer survival trumped all else that day.
Kaite’s fellow Purple Knights, with the guidance and support of coach Dawn, had continued to play out the season without their teammate and star pitcher. “The most important thing I tried to convey to the team was that we still had a job to do. We had to push through for Kaite,” said coach Dawn. UB’s softball team won 30 games during the spring 2023 season.
As soon as Kaite finished chemotherapy, she began working with Coach Pechin to rebuild her strength. Before cancer, she could pitch a 67-mile-an-hour fastball (the average Division II college softball pitcher can toss around 58 miles per hour). During her first pitching lesson after finishing chemotherapy, she pitched 62 miles per hour. “By the end of the summer, she was able to pitch 63 miles per hour even after throwing 100 pitches,” said coach Pechin. Within a few months, Kaite went from lasting 5-10 minutes per lesson to throwing more than 100 pitches in a session.
Kaite returned to the mound at UB in the fall of 2023. “It was nice to come back and start to feel normal again,” she shared. During her third game back, she notched an incredible 14 strikeouts. “If this fall is any indication, the spring of 2024 could be a banner year for our softball program,” said coach Dawn.
Making a comeback
Kaite still has some health hurdles to overcome on and off the field. In the classroom, she struggles to focus for long periods. She’s also noticed some changes in her memory since undergoing chemotherapy. On the field, Kaite is experiencing neuropathy in her hands and feet. The numbness and tingling, a common side effect of cancer treatment, means she has to squeeze the ball harder than she thinks she should. It also means she can’t always feel her foot plant after pitching the ball — which can sometimes cause her to turn her ankle.
During her first game back this fall, the opposing team, Southern Connecticut State University, gave Kaite a standing ovation after her first pitch — a standing ovation that Coach Dawn had to later tell Kaite about because she was so focused on her game that she didn’t notice it happening. Kaite pitched three innings and threw nine strikeouts that day.
Kaite survived a form of cancer that is often difficult to catch early. According to the American College of Radiology, “Ovarian Cancer ranks fifth in cancer deaths among women, accounting for more deaths than any other cancer of the female reproductive system.” Kaite was among the approximately 19,000 other women who received an ovarian cancer diagnosis in 2023.
Ovarian cancer is difficult to detect because its early-stage symptoms can be very vague. Most women don’t experience symptoms until their ovarian cancer has begun to spread. Each year, September is Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. This past September, Kaite, and the UB softball team turned UB’s softball field from UB purple to teal to raise awareness for the early symptoms of ovarian cancer.
The spring season doesn’t start until the end of February — giving Kaite time to continue building her strength. “Anything positive she gives us is a win for us,” said coach Dawn. “If she stays the course, she will have an excellent year.”
For more information about the signs and symptoms of Ovarian Cancer, visit turnthetownsteal.org