PHOTO BY LYNDSAY RADNEDGE

Senior midfielder Areta Buness is now a staple in Stanford's starting lineup after walking onto the team as a freshman.

Buness Defies Odds at Stanford, Lacrosse is 'Escape' from Disease


Last renovated in October 2011, Stanford’s Laird Q. Cagan Stadium now features the Leo Weinstein Field House below its elevated seating structure, complete with team and referee locker rooms, a sports medicine room and public restrooms adjacent to Maloney Field.

It’s home to the Cardinal’s soccer programs, as well as its women’s lacrosse team, and serves as a recruiting tool to attract the next generation of student-athletes.

But during her recruiting process, the most appealing amenity for senior midfielder Areta Buness was not all the bells and whistles. 

It was actually the most overlooked area – the bathroom. 

It’s the room that most tour guides would simply mention with a finger pointing in its direction. It’s the space you don’t realize its importance until you really need to use it when it’s either already occupied or out of service. 

It’s a heartbreaking reality that still brings tears to the eyes of Buness’ mother, Cynthia.

“As a mother, I think I can talk about this, but it brings it all back,” Cynthia Buness said.

It’s not a topic Areta Buness likes discussing either – until now. 

She recently opened a scholarship essay with the following statement from sports psychologist Jerry Lynch: “I refuse to let my fears stand in the way of my potential.”

“Eight years ago, I started playing lacrosse, and eight years ago, I was diagnosed with severe ulcerative colitis (UC),” Areta Buness wrote.

The same year Cagan Stadium was upgraded, the then-eighth grader was prescribed numerous medications for UC, a disease that affects the colon and was triggered by her acne medicine, doxycycline, which she began taking a year prior. 

The prescriptions, however, had endless side effects. 

“One caused bloody stools. One caused pancreatitis. She’d be up vomiting every night in the middle of the night,” Cynthia Buness described. 

“I had to run to the bathroom all the time,” Areta Buness said. 

For two years, the side effects continued. 

The prescriptions left her malnourished as she couldn’t absorb nutrients or gain weight. It left her extremely fatigued, weighing 92 pounds at 5-foot-5.

She had to quit cross country after her freshman year at Xavier Prep (Ariz.) because there weren’t bathrooms nearby. She could only compete in sports, like badminton, that had a restroom or locker room within seconds of the court or field. 

Even in lacrosse, the inevitable couldn’t escape her. She had to stop at a restaurant on the way to a tournament in New York, but the line for the women’s lavatory was too long.

“There were so many times, that she talked about in her essay, etched in her mind she didn’t make it to the bathroom,” Cynthia Buness said. “She had to race off the field and then throw away her underwear. As a parent, it was just horrible.”


“I accept my disease, but it doesn't define me.” — Areta Buness


By her sophomore year, her doctors discovered abnormal liver enzymes in her monthly blood test. A liver biopsy later revealed she also had primary sclerosing cholangitis (PSC), which is a rare bile duct disease that typically results in a liver transplant.

“But there’s a 40-plus percent chance that it comes back in the new liver,” said Cynthia Buness, who joined the National Patient Advocate Foundation. “I am a patient advocate and I’ve been dealing with other patients, and there are kids, 16-year-olds, who have been through three and four liver transplants. It’s just not a sustainable future, so we’re trying to keep her from going there.”

When Areta Buness’ health didn’t improve, her mother focused all her energy on helping her. It began by reading medical journals – “It would take me six hours to read a page,” she said –  to writing her own papers with the Mayo Clinic. She graduated from Arizona State with a bachelor’s degree in zoology, a master’s in business administration and a juris doctor degree, but after her daughter was diagnosed, she switched gears from a career in law, focusing on conservation, to one dedicated to research, specifically PSC.

“You do what you have to do,” Cynthia Buness said. “My life, I was focused on the environment and saving the world, and now it’s trying to save my daughter.”

Not only was liver failure not an option, her gastroenterologist in Phoenix suggested a colectomy, which was quickly shot down by the entire family. 

“If we had followed that advice, she’d be wearing a coloscopy bag and wouldn’t be at Stanford,” Cynthia Buness said. 

That same doctor also told her to cease participation in all competitive sports.

“Give me an option that was beneficial rather than just saying, ‘There’s no treatment. Good luck,’” Areta Buness said. 

No was not acceptable. 

“Events of internal humiliation became a normal part of my life in high school,” Areta Buness wrote. “Nobody knew from the outside, but each time I had to sprint to the bathroom, each time I didn’t make it in time, and each time I had to explain to nutritionists that I was trying to eat as much as possible and I didn’t know why I wasn’t gaining weight — each time made me more determined. I set my goals high and decided to never let my disease stop me from achieving them.”

After her parents, Cynthia and Randy, dug further into scientific research, they came across a 2011 article in Stanford Medicine magazine, entitled “The Case of the Disappearing Liver Disease: Uncovering an Ordinary Antibiotic’s Secret Power.” 

At the center of a medical discovery was pediatric gastroenterologist Kenneth Cox. In 1993, he had prescribed the antibiotic vancomycin to a 15-year-old male patient, who also had two serious gastrointestinal diseases. 

“And something very strange happened,” the article read. “The liver-disease symptoms vanished.”

Almost as quickly as Cynthia picked up her phone to dial Dr. Cox, the Buness family boarded a plane to California. Within a year of starting treatment, Areta Buness had gained 35 pounds and her diarrhea stopped. She now takes vancomycin twice a day. 

“He had a 100-percent success rate treating patients who had both UC and PSC,” Areta Buness said. “It completely reversed.”








Meanwhile, on the lacrosse field, she was battling unending denial. College coaches refused to recruit her. 

But again, no was not an acceptable answer. She kept pushing.

“I worked harder than everybody else, I overcompensated in both the classroom and in lacrosse and didn’t give up when college coaches told me I was too skinny or dismissed me because of the state I was from,” wrote the three-time US Lacrosse first-time All-American out of Arizona. 

She attended Stanford’s lacrosse camp six times, both summer and winter sessions, “before the coaches even knew my name,” she remembered. 

By her sixth camp, right before Christmas, Areta Buness was a junior. 

Her parents nearly lost hope before she left for Stanford that winter, but they hid their emotions. A former Stanford assistant had called her father, Randy, to say the current Cardinal coaching staff wasn’t interested.

“She did come to a ton of camps,” Stanford coach Amy Bokker said. “She was smaller in stature, a feisty, athletic kid that was really raw in her skill. Coming from Arizona, obviously I wasn’t sure if she could play against high-level competition, which was always a concern.”

Although her parents had gone to every camp to cheer her on, they sat this one out. When family friends in the Bay Area picked her up as a favor, Areta Buness used their phone to share some news – Bokker had taken notice. 

“They made me an offer!” Cynthia Buness recalled her daughter exclaiming. “It was the walk-on offer. They said she still had to get in on her own, but you have a spot on the team. That was, to her, an offer.”

“For me, that was all I needed,” said the Xavier Prep valedictorian, who travelled to play on out-of-state club teams, such as the LA Wave, just to get experience. “I got perfect grades in high school, top of my class, that I thought if I got a spot on the team, I could take care of the rest of it. That would really be all I needed.”

Bokker even signed a walk-on commitment letter so Areta Buness could join her classmates who had formal offers on signing day.

“It was kind of like a pretend experience, but for her, it was really important,” Cynthia Buness said.  “[Her symptoms] were not controllable, but what was controllable is the effort that she could put into making her life as normal as possible and into succeeding with everything she did. She looked at every challenge as something to perfect. … Her determination was always, ‘I’m going to do this. I’m going to do this in spite of what I have to deal with.”

In her first practice with Stanford in the fall of 2015, Areta Buness initially allowed others to get the ball. She soon realized life in the comfort zone wasn’t her forte. 

“I got a little comfortable letting other people get the ball, being on the sideline watching, and I didn’t like that,” Areta Buness said. “I have to prove myself every single year. I don’t think anything is ever set. You always have to constantly be improving. Otherwise, you’ll get worse.”

As a walk-on, she went through a two-week trial period and quickly impressed Bokker in all facets of being a part of a Division I team – practices, meetings, film sessions and conditioning.  

“She did great,” Bokker said. “She’s not only quick and fast, but she has great endurance. She really is a standout.”




PHOTO COURTESY OF BUNESS FAMILY

College coaches refused to coach Areta Buness due to her small stature caused by her battle with two diseases.


Areta Buness is now a staple in Stanford’s starting lineup, recording four caused turnovers, 12 ground balls, 21 points and 21 draw controls in 13 games in 2019. With 98 career points, she eyes breaking the century mark despite sustaining injuries, including a partially torn hamstring.

“She’s not even in her peak performance right now because she sat out a lot, dealing with [her] hamstring,” Bokker said. “She doesn’t miss a beat. … We don’t really worry about her because we know she’ll be fine.”

In 2018, she helped lead the Cardinal to the inaugural Pac-12 tournament crown as a member of the all-conference second team, while also earning all-academic honors by both the Pac-12 and IWLCA.

“For sure, she’s defied the odds with this disease,” Cynthia Buness said.

But it was her starting debut as a sophomore that is forever fixed in her parents’ memories. Although that Feb. 18, 2017, game against Duke resulted in a loss at The Star in Frisco, Texas, home of the Dallas Cowboys, it was their “most defining moment,” Cynthia Buness recalled.

“As usual, she doesn’t tell us anything,” Cynthia Buness said. “She doesn’t tell us any of the dynamics of the team. She doesn’t tell us about plays. We have to ask questions. We’re those parents whom she just doesn’t talk to. She’s afraid, I think, we’ll be too involved. 

“We’re up in the stands, they call the starting lineup and she’s called,” she continued. “We looked at each other and said, ‘Oh my god!’ She played awesome in that game. Unbeknownst to us, she was going to start, and she’s started ever since.”

And ever since she became a Cardinal, her parents have stayed by her side to witness every second, good or bad. 

“She knows we come to every game,” Cynthia Buness said. “It doesn’t matter where it is. We fly all over the country. We’re not going to miss a moment of her life because it is so precious to us.”

Today, Areta Buness takes 15 pills a day, which adds up to 240 antibiotics alone each month excluding necessary supplements. She also gets monthly blood tests and yearly colonoscopies and MRCPs, the latter being an MRI with a contrast of the liver, because she has a high risk of getting colon and liver cancers.

While she needs the help of her parents to manage her diseases, lacrosse is her “escape,” she said. It’s her safe zone. The only no she accepts is her opponents’ lack of awareness that she has UC and PSC. 

“It’s a big hell no,” Bokker said. “There’s no way people would know with the way she plays. … She is a major cog in our fast break and she can also finish like it’s her business.” 

And if Areta Buness has anything to say about it, her mind is resolute. She hasn’t complained once.

“I accept my disease, but it doesn't define me.”