OSWEGO, NY – Less than a year after fighting to improve with the Oswego State women’s basketball team on the hardwood of Max Ziel Gymnasium, Rachael Windhausen was fighting for something different – her life.
Rachael was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma after a series of tests and scans over the summer, changing her focus from post moves and jump shots to chemotherapy treatments and survival.
It all started with a lump near the sophomore’s clavicle.
Rachael noticed the swollen area and waited to see if the swelling would dissipate.
Although the swelling seemed to go down, she took a trip to urgent care on July 20 to get the area inspected.
After a sonogram, urgent care physicians urged Rachael to set up an appointment with her primary care physician.
Being an 18-year-old college student who no longer could see her pediatrician as she did for the first 18 years of her life, Rachael’s mother, Tracy, made a call to her own physician, begging for the doctors to fit her daughter into their schedule.
The doctors obliged and Rachael was seen and tested for a variety of ailments, including but not limited to Mononucleosis, Hepatitis B or C and Strep Throat.
Her blood work seemed normal but X-rays, CT scans and PET scans were to follow.
Those tests showed something more serious, multiple masses that proved to be cancerous, more specifically, Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Before the official diagnosis, Rachael gave Oswego State head women’s basketball coach Tracy Bruno a call.
“I called coach to let her know about the situation on the Friday or Saturday before receiving my diagnosis,” Rachael recalled. “She was so supportive. Coach was halfway to Massachusetts to recruit and asked me what I needed. She said she would turn around and come back to Syracuse.”
On Monday, August 3, Rachael was diagnosed with stage-3 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
Four days later, the Liverpool, NY, native celebrated – for lack of a better word – her 19th birthday. It seemed odd to be celebrating anything with the recent news she had received.
Rachael’s update was the third blow to a women’s basketball team that looked to be on the cusp of turning the corner at the end of the 2014-15 campaign.
Bruno had learned that her top three scorers from that season would not be returning for 2015-16.
Leading scorer and SUNYAC Rookie of the Year Alisha Jacobs would not return for personal reasons. Senior captain and second leading scorer Heather Hebert had blown out an ACL, sidelining her for the year.
And then, there was Rachael.
“We had a really young team during 2014-15 that came together and were playing much better basketball at the end of that season,” Bruno said. “Even though losing our top three scorers from that season was a tough pill to swallow, Rachael’s upcoming battle and how to support her was our focus.”
Rachael was staring at 12 treatments of chemotherapy over the coming months, starting on August 24, which should have been the first day of classes of her sophomore year fall semester.
“My dad called the college to withdraw me from my fall semester classes,” Rachael said. “Although I wouldn’t be able to physically attend classes, I wanted to stay on track so I signed up for one online class through Oswego and two more at Monroe Community College.”
And so it began – treatment every other Monday, followed by a day or two of nausea, hair loss, then bouncing back, completing the online course work, attending as many of Oswego’s home games as possible, taking two fitness classes at Syracuse’s North Area YMCA for physical and emotional support with others who were fighting or had survived cancer – all to do it over-and-over again for 24 straight weeks.
During her fight, there was plenty of support, starting with her immediate family, her Oswego State women’s basketball family, her YMCA family, her Liverpool High School family and even the Facebook group “Rachael’s Rebels,” where her mother kept a sort of play-by-play of Rachael’s journey.
All the support and inner-fight led her to the final treatment on Jan. 25, a day that should have represented her first day of spring semester classes.
Then came the waiting and anticipation of taking the tests and scans that would show whether those 12 treatments worked.
A month-long wait until Feb. 29 – an already unique day that comes around just once every four years – became one of Rachael’s favorite days.
The tests and scans showed a couple spots to watch, but other than those, doctors determined Rachael was officially in remission.
“Now I visit the doctors every three months to keep an eye on those few spots. Then, after a while, checkups will only happen every six months,” Rachael said. “After five years of clean tests and scans, I will be considered cured.”
Rachael is the epitome of an optimist.
Lymphoma was never an excuse, it was just another challenge she was determined to overcome.
The experience came with lessons and built strength and confidence in the student-athlete.
“It’s okay to cry, it’s okay to have a bad day,” Rachael described a lesson learned. “But it’s how you pick yourself up after that matters.”
So when asked about her plans to return to the basketball court, the survivor simply responded: “I’m coming back better than ever.”