Sophomore outside hitter discusses her cancer journey and her gradual return to the court
After a spectacular freshman year performance in which she led the UC Davis volleyball team in number of kills, Mahalia White was named Big West Freshman Player of the Week six times and became the first player in program history to be awarded Big West Conference Freshman of the Year. It seemed like the sophomore outside hitter Mahalia White could not be slowed down. That was until she received a diagnosis that changed her life.
Dealing with constant back pain near the end of the 2017-18 season, White assumed the pain was simply an injury resulting from her hours of hard work and training throughout the season. After the season was over, however, an MRI revealed cancer, specifically stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“When I first had my diagnosis I was very naive about it and thought we were going to get this [treatment] done very fast,” White said. “Also when I first heard, I thought that was going to be the end of my career because at first they didn’t know what kind of cancer it was. When they told me it was curable I knew it would be a long process, but now it feels like I never went through it. I know I have to be patient with recovery. It’s a blessing I can still do what I love to do.”
According to the American Cancer Society, people diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin’s lymphoma have around a 65 percent five-year survival rate. It would take time off of the court, a significantly lightened course load and numerous rounds of chemotherapy, but White was told she would eventually be able to return back to the sport she loves. For White, it was about being optimistic throughout her chemo treatment as well as in her current remission process.
“Now I know that I can get through anything,” White stated. “I experienced the worst thing I’ve ever been through. The little soreness I have now is worth it compared to all the time I was sick. I think to be optimistic is just that I worked so hard to get to where I am now, so I have to keep going.”
With her support system of her parents, her two brothers, her teammates and other UC Davis athletes, White was able to stay strong throughout the treatment process. UC Davis volleyball Head Coach Dan Conners and 40 UC Davis athletes from other sports shaved their heads in support of White and raised money for children’s cancer research during a St. Baldricks Foundation fundraiser. White’s mother, a breast cancer survivor who finished her treatment five months before White’s diagnosis, was one of the outside hitter’s biggest supporters, always reminding her to keep fighting.
“My family are all very close and we have a very close bond,” White said. “My mom would come visit me every couple weeks, and my brothers and dad would always check up on me to see how I was. My friends in Davis and at home did the most for me and that kind of stuff, like calling me to see how I was […was] the most sentimental to me. At that time, I just needed people to keep my mind off things, so it was good to have people be around.”
Now, just over a year since her first diagnosis, White is in remission. Recent tests and scans look nothing other than promising for the volleyball star. Now, the sophomore is back with a full class schedule, biking to classes and slowly beginning to get back onto the court. Her current training regimen includes daily conditioning and minor technical skills practice to slowly ease her way back in before the beach volleyball season begins in early March.
“Now that I am back into it, it feels good to have things keep me occupied throughout the day,” White said. “It feels good to exercise and continue to play volleyball with my friends and just have stuff going on.”
While her first goal is still to pursue a professional volleyball career, her experience and help from nonprofit organizations such as Keaton’s Child Cancer Alliance and St. Baldrick’s opened her eyes to a possible future career that she had never considered.
“For a long time I was just thinking about the right now, and now I actually think about my future a lot more,” White said. “I want to work in sports, but I want to work with nonprofit organizations that worked with injured athletes or athletes who are going through treatment because that is what really helped me to stay positive. I just want to see how far I can go with volleyball and how far that takes me.”
As far as the biggest life lesson that she took away from the process, White believes she came away with a realization about her mental strength.
“I definitely learned how to be mentally strong,” White said. “For a long time, I lost all my weight and lost my strength to do a lot of things, so being mentally strong will take you further than physical strength.”
If one thing is for sure, it’s that White will never stop pushing. Fans and community members alike are waiting for the day when she will step back onto the court and continue to show everyone her fighting spirit.
Written by: Ryan Bugsch — firstname.lastname@example.org