- A Las Vegas Aces fan living with Stage IV cancer said it was her dream to meet Kelsey Plum.
- The WNBA All-Star helped the woman check it off her “bucket list” and gave her an unforgettable game-day experience.
- Plum and the fan, Ashleigh Ahrens, spoke to Insider about their emotional meeting at Sunday’s game.
Ashleigh Ahrens has been a big Las Vegas Aces fan ever since the WNBA franchise moved to Sin City in 2018.
During the Aces’ inaugural season in her “home away from home,” the Southern Californian accompanied a close friend to a game and instantly fell in love with the team. One player in particular — a feisty second-year point guard who, like her, hails from SoCal — captured her attention.
Four years and a life “flipped upside down” later, that same Las Vegas player — 2022 WNBA All-Star Kelsey Plum — helped Ahrens check a milestone off her bucket list.
“I loved her as an athlete before this weekend,” Ahrens told Insider. “And now I love her as a person.”
Fighting through a ‘devastating’ diagnosis
In 2019, Ahrens, then just 32 years old, received news that completely altered the trajectory of her young life: She had stage IV — or metastatic — breast cancer.
At first, doctors identified cancerous tissue in both of her femurs, her sternum, and her lungs, in addition to her breasts. And while “the word incurable was used,” as she noted on her Instagram at the time, the word “terminal” wasn’t mentioned.
So she resolved to fight, channeling the same “tenacity” she told Insider drew her to Plum in the first place.
Ahrens took on chemotherapy treatment once every three weeks, had a mastectomy, and underwent radiation. Then, a little more than a year after her initial diagnosis, a scan revealed a new growth in a lymph node near her trachea.
She started a new treatment, but a year after that, the cancer had spread to her brain. More tests, more treatment, more progression, and more sacrifices — “like having kids and [choosing] not to pursue graduate school” — followed.
“You can only really live from scan to scan, every three months,” Ahrens told Insider. “And at 32, it’s taken so many opportunities from me.
“Despite that, I’ve accepted my new normal and changed my perspective on life,” she added. “Everything means more. Every moment. Every I love you.”
With a renewed appreciation for the preciousness of time, Ahrens has made it her mission “to travel and see as many places and have as many new experiences as I can.” She’s developed something of a bucket list.
In July of this year, Ahrens rang in the three-year anniversary of her initial diagnosis — a milestone she only had a 50% chance of reaching — while on a trip to Yellowstone National Park with her fiancée.
A month later, she headed to Las Vegas to chase another item on her bucket list.
Meeting her inspiration
Ahrens knew ahead of time that her trip to Sin City would involve some Aces basketball, but she had no idea she’d get to experience it up-close and personal. She watched the WNBA’s top-seeded team take down the Atlanta Dream on August 9, then opted to return to Michelob ULTRA Arena two days later for a massive matchup against the reigning champion Chicago Sky.
“Originally I bought cheaper tickets, but I decided to change to first row seats when I saw some available,” Ahrens said. “It was sort of last minute… On my way, I mentioned that I wished I had a sign.”
Her friend convinced her that they had enough time to make a detour to a convenience store. They picked up the necessary materials — paper, markers, rhinestones, ribbon — and assembled Ahrens’ masterpiece “in about 10 minutes.”
It read: “Living w Stage 4 breast cancer! Meeting Plum #10 is on my bucket list!”
It took less than a day for the superstar to take notice.
“My mom actually sent it to me and asked me if I had seen it,” Plum told Insider. “So when she sent it, that’s when I tweeted it out.”
She also reached out to the team’s social media director, Kris Lumague, “because he’s a genius — he knows everything” and surely would be able to help her find the then-unknown fan.
“Sure enough,” Plum said, “he found her.”
“Their social media guy found me on Instagram through hashtags after she had texted him,” Ahrens confirmed. “At the same time, I received a text from a friend with a screenshot of the tweet. I was mind blown. I immediately commented on it.”
—Ashleigh Ahrens (@Ashleighjoy5) August 13, 2022
From there, the Aces organization — as well as the goodwill of a Las Vegas fan who offered Ahrens a courtside seat for Sunday’s game against the Seattle Storm — made it “super easy” for Plum to make the meeting happen. Ahrens arrived at the arena bright and early, met with a few members of the Aces’ communications team, and did some interviews with Fox 5 and ESPN.
Before she knew it, Plum emerged from the locker room.
“She didn’t see me at first, but when we made eye contact, I got up and almost ran to her to give her a hug,” Ahrens said. “We talked briefly. I made sure to immediately express to her how grateful I was and how much it meant to me. To be honest I don’t remember exactly her response, but it was basically that it was not a problem at all and she was happy to do it. Then she asked where my seats were and said she’d come by after the game.”
Plum remembers adding something along the lines of: “You can hear me talking a lot during the game!”
—Paloma Villicana FOX5 (@PalomaVillicana) August 14, 2022
“I was just saying it was pleasure to meet you, gave a big hug,” Plum added. “I just appreciated her for coming and told her to let me know, whatever you need, I’m here.”
As promised, Plum found her way over to Ahrens following the game — a thrilling, 109-100 Las Vegas victory. After recording 23 points and four rebounds, the sharpshooter bought with her a T-shirt and then bent down to untie her shoes for Ahrens to take home.
“The coolest part of all of this is despite the fact this is a daily struggle, for almost a week now, I haven’t thought about it,” Ahrens said. “It’s ironic because my health is what inspired this to happen. The greatest gift she gave me is a distraction from it all.”
“This bucket list item has been by far my favorite,” she added.
A reminder that ‘life is so much bigger than basketball’
Plum promised that this is just the first of many times Ahrens will hear from her.
“I’m still gonna be involved in checking on her and how she’s doing and stuff like that,” Plum said. “And I feel like this community has really seen the story and is gonna wrap their arms around her, because that’s who this community is. Not just the Aces, but the WNBA and the fans here in Las Vegas. A lot of people were touched.”
That was Ahrens’ goal. She said she hopes sharing her story will help inspire other people “like Kelsey inspires me.”
The feeling’s mutual.
“I can’t even truly express [what it means], just the fact that, of all people, she felt pulled to wanna meet me,” Plum said. “For her to feel in any way that I’ve impacted her in this fight and in her journey, I mean, I was teary, just at a loss for words.
“She inspired me, so I think it goes both ways,” she added.
The 27-year-old headed into the first round of the WNBA playoffs motivated as ever to “protect the house” and deliver the franchise its first-ever WNBA title. But Plum simultaneously entered the postseason with a fresh understanding that “this is just a game.”
“In terms of the grand scheme of life, life is so much bigger than basketball.”