The Monday before Christmas, freshman volleyball player Marissa Akers was diagnosed with Hodgkins Lymphoma, cancer of the lymph nodes.
Akers then had to make a plan to undergo chemotherapy treatments and decide whether to put her studies at Knox on hold for the upcoming term.
After deep consideration, Akers made the decision to stay enrolled in her Winter Term classes while undergoing chemotherapy in Galesburg. Her parents and three siblings, who live several hours away in Shelbyville, Ind., supported Akers in her decision.
After the first week of treatment this term though, Akers realized how difficult this whole process would be.
“The first chemo treatment I had was the worst week of my life. I threw up non-stop. They didn’t know what to do for me.”
The hardest part for Akers was trying to keep it just between her couple close friends.
“I think people kind of started realizing after my first chemo session. I started wearing sweatpants out of the dorm to class or meals, which I never used to do. I have modeled for 14 years so fashion is really important to me. And my skin tone changed, I started getting really pale.”
Still, Akers remained committed to continuing her education during this difficult time, attending classes as much as she could even if she had to leave multiple times to get sick in the bathroom.
It was a dark time for Akers, as she explained, “I was without my family, just living in my dorm with chemo.”
Akers found it difficult to fight through her recovery process without her family by her side, forcing her to start realizing that it would probably be best to continue her treatment at home with her family.
“Without my family there, it was kind of just a mental depression. I wanted my family, I wanted my mom to hold me when I was upset and I just wanted to be home. Going through chemo, the biggest problem is that people get depressed and when that happens you can’t really come back from it,” said Akers.
After her first chemotherapy treatment, Akers was beginning to realize keeping her secret would be near impossible.
“I wanted to keep it low-key, I didn’t want a lot of people to know, but my friends started finding out and reaching out to me asking how they can help. The amount of support I got when people started finding out was amazing, and that is why I feel confident in telling everyone now,” Akers said.
Since then, Akers has received countless messages and texts from people offering their support, even from people she does not even know.
“I think mentally it’s a lot better for me to have everyone know and support me rather than feeling like I had to hide it,” Akers said.
The strong response of support from the community and her friends surprised Akers.
“The way people took it was different than I thought it would be. I thought putting it out there would turn people away from me instead of pulling them closer. When everyone started reaching out to me and supporting me I was so surprised,” she said.
Quickly, these messages of support started turning into concrete action. Akers’s friends created a GoFundMe page and began raising money for the Akers family.
One of Akers’s biggest supporters has been Volleyball Coach Ashley McDonough. When Akers told McDonough that she had been diagnosed, McDonough was not surprised by what immediately came next.
“She told me she was playing next season and I better not re-recruit her position. I told her — jokingly but not joking — ‘Don’t worry I won’t, but I am going to make you do just as many burpees as anyone else. Don’t think you’re getting out of anything,’” McDonough said.
McDonough and Akers have a very close relationship and while their relationship on the volleyball court always has them pushing each other to improve.
“She challenged me in a good way to come up with alternative ways of getting her ‘to let go’ and just have a little fun.” McDonough said, continuing, “As a coach, any time a kid can make you reevaluate yourself that’s a good thing.”
McDonough added that Akers is “stubborn as hell,” but absolutely determined to become the best person, student, player and teammate she can at all times.
Even when Akers unenrolled from her classes for the term and headed home for her treatments, the support campaign led by McDonough continued.
Akers and McDonough continue to stay in constant contact through their daily texts in which Akers updates her on how she feels that day, what her plans are and just general conversation.
When she is able to see Akers, McDonough tries to do as much as she can to help Akers and the rest of her family.
“I listen to her, hug her, cry with her, laugh with her and make her down bottles of water even when she doesn’t want to. My goal is to help keep her as happy and healthy as possible and be there for her parents. My brother had cancer and knowing what this does to the parents and family members is tough to say the least,” McDonough said.
Freshman Madison Byrne, Akers’ roommate, teammate and best friend, has worked hard to make sure Akers feels as comfortable as possible.
“When she had a rough round of chemotherapy, I would spend the night her, making sure she could feel as good as she possibly could. I mostly just try to be her biggest supporter on good days and bad ones,” Byrne said.
This dedication was obvious to McDonough, who singled Byrne out as one of the biggest aides for Akers during her time on campus this term.
“Maddie Byrne darn near never left Marissa’s side from the moment she got her port put in until days after her first treatment,” McDonough said.
The whole team rallied to help Akers, putting together a care package which included a blanket to serve as comfort and a reminder of her friends at school who support her.
“I would not have been able to get through it without my friends and my coach. It’s just nice to have friends like that who care and want to help me,” Akers said.
Even with all this help from the Knox community, Akers still has to struggle through her therapy sessions, trying to stay in the right mindset.
“I try to go in with a positive outlook because I love my nurses and the people who take care of me, they are just so amazing,” Akers said.
Though she would not describe her family as incredibly religious, Akers said that she also has been comforted by a chaplain who comes to talk with her in the hospital.
“She is always telling me that my path forward in life is still guided,” Akers said, encouraging her that this speed bump is just a slight detour from the vision for her future.
If anything, Akers thinks that she has grown as a person because of these experiences.
“I am not as judgmental as I used to be. I realize now that everyone has a story and I want to learn that story. You just can’t know, someone could be going through an internal hell,” Akers explained.
Through it all, Akers has remained determined to work on improving as an athlete, now working on the mental aspect more while her body heals. This has also given her time to set goals and look forward to her future as an athlete, always looking for ways to improve.
“I know I’ll be done with chemo in June, so I will have the summer to prepare for volleyball. Right now I’m setting mental goals for the summer,” Akers explained.
One of these goals, which she has discussed often with McDonough, is to be in the top ten in blocks in all of the Midwest Conference next year. This is just another piece of Akers’ fight that has inspired McDonough.
“When a young person like her is so determined to be a student athlete, and still workout mind you, despite being diagnosed with cancer, it should make the rest of us want to step our life game up,” McDonough said.
But for McDonough, it is important to remind people throughout this process that Akers is more than just this sickness.
“I want people to know that you aren’t defined by your circumstances. Marissa isn’t just the girl with cancer … She’s Marissa the friend, the teammate, the pain in the butt, the daughter, the student, the athlete and the girl ripping cancer a new one,” McDonough explained.
While taking it a day at a time, McDonough is very optimistic for what the future holds for Akers.
“We fully anticipate a full recovery and you will see her in a jersey next season,” McDonough said.
Reconnecting with old high school friends, Akers has gained an even bigger appreciation for Knox during this trying time.
“My friend is attending Purdue University, which is where I would have gone if I had not chosen Knox. She told me that if I went there and had this nobody would know, nobody would care. She told me how lucky I am to have so many people at my school helping me. It has only been one month and to see how much people at Knox have already done for me and my family is amazing, and it has really changed everything around me,” Akers said.
“Anybody who goes to Knox is blessed,” Akers said.