Just think about this:
UC Davis outside hitter Mahalia White was the Big West Conference freshman of the year.
She led the Aggies in kills while unknowingly playing almost the entire season with a back that was sore.
And not from overuse or injury.
But because she had cancer.
“She was always able to play through it,” said UC Davis coach Dan Conners, who never expected anything was amiss.
Her mother, Patsy, had to laugh.
“We all keep wondering,” Patsy said, “what will you do now when your back’s not hurting anymore? How hard will you hit the ball?”
White, a 6-footer from Canoga Park, Calif., learned on December 4, a day after her 19th birthday, that she had Hodgkins Lymphoma.
By all accounts, it’s treatable and her prognosis is good. She plans to play in 2018, but that’s a long way off. For now, White is all but shut down, going through chemo treatments and trying to deal with the last thing anyone expected.
“Sore backs are par for the course in volleyball,” Conners said. “When you’re running and jumping, that’s kind of what happens.”
That’s what White thought.
“I had this tumor that I didn’t know about and cancer had spread to the bones in my back. So what I thought was a back problem was really cancer,” she said.
The pain started in late September, perhaps early October, White recalled, and at first it wasn’t that bad.
“I felt like if I got my back stretched it felt fine, but by the end of the season, it got really bad and I would stop practicing and jumping to get ready for game time. I was just waiting until the end of the season to figure it out. It wasn’t getting any worse.”
You wouldn’t have known anything was going on from watching her compile great numbers. White played in all but one set for the Aggies and had 398 kills, 3.55 per set. Emily Allen was her closest teammate in kills with 279.
“I did better than I expected. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to start this season,” White said. “That was exciting for me. To become freshman of the year, I was like, wow.”
White hit .246 and averaged .64 digs and .41 blocks for a team that finished 16-14 overall, 8-8 in the Big West.
“I was thinking maybe I might have broken a vertebrae or something like that,” White said. “I don’t know, it was weird, because I could still play through it. It hurt a lot, but it was random. Sometimes when I was playing it wasn’t hurting.”
When the season ended, she and athletic trainer Doug Hess visited Dr. Jeremiah Ray. An MRI, she said, helped “showed the cancer in my spine.”
Mahalia said “I was so shocked.”
She called her mother.
“It was devastating,” Patsy White recalled. “When she called, and she’s a strong, very strong young lady, and she started crying and I knew something was wrong right then. She didn’t tell me. She had to pass the phone to the trainer and the doctor and they told me what had happened.
“No one ever wants to get a call like that regarding something so devastating about their child.”
“That whole week was a big shock to the system, for sure,” Conners said.
But there’s more.
The diagnosis came barely five months after Patsy White finished her final treatments for breast cancer.
“I come from a family with history. We all have the genes. Every woman on my mother’s side has had breast cancer,” Patsy said. “I detected mine by doing self exams.”
That was in the summer of 2016 while Conners was recruiting Mahalia. There were three tumors on her right breast.
“Through all of that I managed to take (Mahalia) to all of her practices and club tournaments. I just kept going, even through my chemo, I just kept going.”
Ultimately, Patsy said, she had a double mastectomy.
“I figured, oh, well, with the history of the women in our family and everything, I thought that would be the best.”
And maybe what she went through helped her deal with Mahalia.
“It was heart-wrenching, but I was like, ‘OK, get a grip, find out what’s going on, how can we fix this and treat it where she can get well.’ From there, we picked the proper steps with the doctors,” Patsy said.
Mahalia spent some time in the hospital right after the diagnosis, but was allowed to fly home to southern California for the Christmas break. After getting back to Davis, her first monthly chemo treatment — that lasts three days — was January 5.
It made her sick and because the cancer is in her bones, she’s not allowed to do anything physical.
“She doesn’t know how to sit still and not do anything,” Patsy said.
“I’ve never gone a full month without doing sports or anything,” Mahalia said.
Mahalia posted what she was going through on Instagram.
This semester at UC Davis, White took on part-time student status, taking two classes, one in person and one online.
She’s about a six-hour drive from home, which is close in some ways but pretty far from her family, parents Patsy and Martin and her twin brother, Matthew. They have an older brother, Michael.
“Once you get to know her and know her family and get to see what their value system is, she’s just an amazing kid, a hard worker and very humble,” Conners said. “She’s been a pleasure to work with.”
The feeling is mutual.
“I am truly blessed,” Patsy said. “I mean, with Dan Conners, all the people on his staff, they have been truly amazing. They have given the best support. They’re like her parents when my husband and I are not there. They take care of her, make sure she’s OK.”
Mahalia said her teammates have helped her in every day. They even came up with a Livestrong-type bracelet.
“When Mahalia would get a kill throughout the season — and she got a lot of them,” Conners said, “the whole team would chant, ‘Mahell-yeah!’ That’s on the wrist band.”
They hope to be yelling it again in August. The treatments are expected to last six months.
“They told me there’s like an 80- to 90-percent cure rate,” Mahalia said. “They said I could come back and play.”
Patsy expects nothing less.
“Knowing the fighter that she is I’m saying you can come through this just like I did and she’s in better shape than I ever was,” Patsy said with a laugh.
“So I was like, ‘You can definitely do this.’ Being a fighter. Stay positive. That was the mentality I tried to give her when I found out she had this.”