Three words that will forever change my life. “You have cancer.”
In less than 24 hours I went from being a strong, healthy, student-athlete on the UNC Swimming & Diving Team to cancer patient.
First, a little history of how I wound up at UNC. I have been diving since the age of five. The sport was a huge part of my life growing up. Years of practice and commitment to excellence took me all over the world representing the USA in international competitions, and diving is what ultimately brought me to UNC. I toured the campus before taking my official visit, and I knew right away this was the school for me. It wasn’t just the academic prowess of the university or the place I wanted to continue my training. I fell in love with it all – the team, the campus and simply recognizing the way people treated other people.
On Wednesday, September 8, 2021, l was looking forward to attending class and then heading to Greensboro for platform practice. It was in the locker room that a teammate noticed a rather large and unusual bruising on my right hip. I couldn’t for the life of me remember what I could have done to wind up with a bruise of that size. I called our trainer who said if it got worse, got darker or started swelling to come in.
On Thursday I woke up for morning practice and saw that the bruise had welted and tripled in size. And stranger yet, I noticed new bruises had appeared from ordinary activities from the day before – carrying my backpack and sitting in a chair. When I was brushing my teeth, I felt dizzy and saw that my gums were bleeding. Instead of practice, I went straight to the trainer who immediately set up an appointment with the team physician, Dr. [Josh] Berkowitz. It took blood and sent it off as a rush to the lab. I was just getting home from his office when he called to say, “pack a bag and have a friend drive you to the Emergency Department.”
My teammate drove me to UNC Health and the diagnosis came back quickly. I knew the diagnosis was going to be something serious when the ED Doctor asked me to call my emergency contacts. In less than 24 hours from the onset of an unusual bruise, I was told I have Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia, a rare form of cancer.
I asked my doctors how long I’d had it and was told it was probably a month. Symptoms are everyday things such as feeling lethargic, feeling fatigued. And for me this wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. As a student athlete, you feel like you’re running on empty a lot of the time. It wasn’t until the bruising that I knew something was off.
My parents made the journey from Dallas-Ft. Worth to Chapel Hill. My dad drove through the night and my mom caught the first flight out the next morning.
It took a few days for me to process the news and wrap my head around what will be my new reality for the next eight months. During my 34-day hospital stay, my parents took turns rotating two weeks at a time visiting and my teammates kept my spirits up with daily visits and yummy treats. The swim team even stopped traffic outside the hospital with posters and cheers on the way to their first meet of the season. Thankfully my care team allowed me to go outside and partake in the gesture. It was such a special moment.
I shared my story via Instagram and have been overwhelmed with the love and support I received from family, friends and especially the diving community. USA Diving shared my story and responded with video messages from athletes, club teams, and university teams sending prayers and well wishes. What resulted was the hashtag for the season #WeDiveForEmily. It is the most incredible thing I have could have ever imagined. I’ve received hundreds of cards and letters from athletes, some of whom I have never met. Diving is not only a community of athletes, but extended family who truly rise up when one of their own needs encouragement.
What comes next?
As a young athlete, I think about life after cancer. Will I ever be able to dive again? How will chemotherapy affect my body? I visited frequently with counselors from UNC Lineberger’s AYA (Adolescent and Young Adult) Cancer program. This group focuses not only on the physical, but the mental and emotional needs of adolescents and young adults ages 13-39 with cancer.
Once I started talking with them, I knew I wanted to help spread awareness. I wasn’t entirely comfortable asking my doctors questions about what comes next for me. The AYA group provided me with an outlet to discuss the issues. I felt like I could open in discussions with the group. It’s just another example of a support system in place here at UNC. I am looking forward to continuing with AYA and sharing my story with other student groups at Carolina to help spread awareness for what they offer young people.
As I continue with my treatment, I have seen myself improving both mentally and physically. I have plenty of difficult days, but I can see myself getting better. I am 21 years old, and I have cancer. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but once you come to terms with it, it gets easier. My life isn’t ruined; I know I will move past this, live my life and be just fine.
I am currently in remission and will continue as an outpatient at the UNC Cancer Hospital for the next 40 weeks. I will always remember this journey and those who helped me get to the place I am now. I am confident that with excellent medical care, the support of my family and the incredible teammates and coaches that I am so fortunate to be surrounded by, I will return to the sport I love. Until then, Carolina Swimming and Diving, I will be your biggest fan.
#KICKCANCER’SSPLASH, #WeDiveForEmily, #WeSwimForEmily, #DiveInAndDoGood