Kennedy Rooney with her parents in LaVell Edwards Stadium during a football game. (Courtesy of Kennedy Rooney)

‘Your illness is not your identity’ — A life of cheer and cystic fibrosis

Kennedy Rooney, a freshman on the BYU Cheer and STUNT team, has been battling cystic fibrosis since she was two years old, but this fight has never defined her or stopped her from living the life she always dreamt of.

“I’ve just grown up with it my whole life, and I feel like I never really realized it was a big deal,” Rooney said.

Each morning, Rooney wakes up to do the necessary treatments that keep her lungs up to speed with her busy and active lifestyle. Strapping on a vibrating vest, she starts a 15-minute breathing treatment that thins and loosens the mucus in her lungs, allowing her to breathe more efficiently.

Like clockwork, Rooney moves to the next treatment in her morning routine. Putting a small tube-like device up to her mouth, she inhales and exhales slowly and deeply allowing a misty medicine to flow into her lungs.

Because her pancreas doesn’t produce enzymes, that is one more thing for Rooney to monitor and take care of. Downing a few enzyme capsules, Rooney can now enjoy breakfast.

This is just her morning routine.

Video by Kenzie Easton.

Growing up, cystic fibrosis took its place in the backseat of Rooney’s life thanks to her mom who always told her she could achieve anything she wanted, even with this medical condition.

“I just never really looked at it as holding me back because my mom never did,” Rooney said.

“It’s just something you have to deal with,” Rooney’s mom told her. “You can still do everything you want to do.”

This mentality was apparent in Rooney’s childhood as she found an early love of competing as a gymnast. Starting at age five and spanning through her sophomore year of high school, Rooney excelled at her craft despite her complications with cystic fibrosis.

“I think that’s one of the main reasons I’ve been able to stay so healthy and active,” Rooney said as she explained how her doctors have told her that living a healthy and active lifestyle has actually helped with her respiratory issues, not hindered them.

As she entered her junior year of high school, Rooney decided to take up something new that her younger sister had taken interest in: cheer. Never having cheered before, Rooney tried out and made the varsity team. Falling in love with this new sport, she quickly decided that cheer was something she wanted to explore in the college scene.

Rooney was encouraged to try out at BYU by her high school coach, a BYU cheer alum. She went for it and made the team.

“I have loved having Kennedy on our team this year,” BYU head coach Jocelyn Allan said. “She is a bright, talented woman who works hard every day and she just happens to have a different challenge than most people.”

As a cheerleader, Rooney is required to attend early morning practices multiple days a week that allow her and her team to prepare for performances at various BYU athletic events as well as nationals this month.

Executing these energetic three-minute routines requires stamina and endurance that Rooney says she always has, although she frequently experiences burning in her lungs that is just normal for her.

Allan said that Rooney is an “example of positivity and resilience” as she competes as a Division I athlete while dealing with a medical condition that no one would ever know she has if they were to simply meet her on campus.

Rooney’s practically normal life despite her on-the-side battle with cystic fibrosis can largely be attributed to her parents, who taught her that she can shape her life how she wants to.

“In my view, it has not really been a battle,” Rooney’s mom, Emily, said. “But more of just something she maintains and it is part of her daily routine.”

Rooney’s life is not simply waking up, doing her vest breathing treatment, taking her nebulizer medicine, swallowing her enzymes and repeating. Rooney fills her life with things, people and activities that she loves and have shaped her identity.

Being described as a strong athlete with a bubbly personality and having a constant smile on her face, it is clear that Rooney’s personality is not characterized by her medical condition.

“Cystic fibrosis lives in the background of her life,” Emily Rooney said. “She has never made her cystic fibrosis part of her identity. It has never defined her.”

“I’m not cystic fibrosis, cystic fibrosis isn’t me,” Kennedy Rooney said, as she continues to prove that every day.

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