This Sunday the Stetson softball team will forgo their customary green and white uniforms and don their pink jerseys to help raise awareness for those fighting cancer. While there will be a number of survivors in the stands, there will be one on the field, serving as an inspiration for all of those touched by the deadly disease.
“I actually was so in shock that I don’t remember what my first thoughts were,” said Hatter freshman Kelsey Waters who recalled the first moments after finding out she had cancer. “It didn’t really register until the drive back home when I looked in the rearview mirror and saw my dad crying in the front seat.”
Waters, a Hawthorne, Fla., native made that long drive back home in Sept. 2011, in what was the beginning of her junior year of high school. Her diagnosis was papillary thyroid cancer, a growth on the thyroid gland in Water’s throat.
“I was at a softball tournament in Sarasota and I started running a fever and then became really pale,” Waters remembered of her initial symptoms. “Then when I got back home, I had a super sort throat and I thought it was strep but after going to the doctor’s office to check it out, they thought it was meningitis.”
After some rigorous tests and an eventual ultrasound, Waters was given the news that no 16-year old athlete would expect.
“I remember my mom sitting behind me on the table and she just started rubbing my back,” Waters said. “My mom told me that I turned around (after hearing the news) and said, ‘I don’t know why this is happening but God has a reason.’”
With that reason still yet unknown, Waters and her family braced for what lied ahead, which included frequent hospital visits in the months to come.
“The cancer was sitting on top of my thyroid in a nodule type form,” she explained of her condition. “In my heart and in my gut though, I knew for a 100 percent fact that I was going to be okay. I can’t describe it, but I just knew I was going to be fine.”
With a positive attitude and a loving and supportive family by her side, Waters went in for surgery the next month so she could begin taking her first steps on the road to recovery.
“I did not know this until after the surgery, but there was no way to tell where the cancer had spread, so it was all in the dark until the doctors went in and looked at my thyroid,” Waters recalled of her situation. “It could have spread into my voice box, throat or my lymph nodes and there was a chance it could have even made it into my bloodstream.”
Fortunately for Waters, the doctors found that the cancer was contained to just the thyroid, and she knew she would be able to make a full recovery. Still, the process took a toll on not just the 16-year old patient, but those who cared for her.
“Seeing how bad all of this tore up my parents and my friends, I realized that I needed to be strong for them,” Waters said.
During her recovery that strength was fed by the love and support of not just her immediate family, but by her second family. Members of the Keystone Heights High School softball team as well as her travel ball club came out in full force to show their support and appreciation for their battling teammate.
“A lot of donations had come in from my friends to help pay for gas, food and medical treatments,” an appreciative Waters remembered. “My travel ball team made t-shirts, stickers and cancer bows with my number on it. They were my second family and they helped so much, just by being there, supporting me and telling me that it was going to be okay.”
By February Waters was feeling well enough to get back on the field and prepare for the season ahead. Even though her recovery was a relatively short one, that didn’t mean it was without significant side effects.
“It was just so tiring because of the process that I had to go through, which included going on a special diet for radiation treatment,” she explained. “After the radiation, I was able to start trying medicines which would replace the hormones that my thyroid would make. That’s where it became interesting because if you are on too low of a dose you become very lethargic and if you are on too high of a dose you will be super hyper.”
Despite everything she had gone through that season, Waters was healthy enough, but more importantly strong enough to contribute to her team in a big way. The then junior batted .549 and was named a Junior Class All-American en route to helping lead her Keystone Heights team to the state semifinals later that season.
Fast forward two years and Waters has traded in her high school’s red, white and blue uniforms for that of Stetson’s green and white threads. That’s why when Waters sports the pink on Sunday; she will do so with pride, knowing she has beaten the odds and in the process proved to herself what she is capable of.
“The fact that I actually made it and am playing college softball after such a huge setback in the prime time of college scouting is amazing to me,” She said. “I am so blessed and feel so honored and I now realize that it is a privilege to be playing this sport.”
That fact is not just recognized by Waters alone, but it is also on the minds of the Hatter coaching staff who helped bring her to DeLand
“She is just an incredible person that has come through an experience that is traumatic and horrific,” said assistant softball coach J.J. Payette. “She has turned this experience into a positive one and wants to help others, which really shows the type of person she is.”
“The effect that the cancer actually had on me wasn’t a negative one at all,” the first-year outfielder explained. “It was actually very positive because it made me realize that I can get through anything, so I think it’s great we have a cancer game because we can honor those who are fighting, or those who maybe weren’t as lucky as I was.”
Two years removed from her ordeal, all that remains for the 18-year old are the memories associated with her fight and a tiny scar on her neck from the surgery. Ironically enough, she is now thankful for both and uses them as a chance to share her unique experience with others.
“Whenever I see my scar, I am kind of glad that it’s noticeable because maybe someone will ask me about it and I will be able to tell them what happened,” Waters explained. “Through that, hopefully they will see good will come of a bad situation.”
That message will resonate well with those honored before Sunday’s game who have, or are currently fighting the disease. No matter what Waters’ batting average reads during her first season of collegiate ball, her teammates, coaches and those in the stands will all know she is batting a thousand in the game of life for hitting a home run against the curveball known as cancer.
The 2014 Strikeout Cancer Game will take place Sunday, Feb. 16 at Patricia Wilson Field as Stetson takes on Bethune-Cookman at 12 p.m. Before the game cancer survivors and others affected by the disease will be honored by the team. Donations will also be accepted at Patricia Wilson Field on behalf of the American Cancer Society.
Sunday’s contest will be the ninth and final game of the Hatter Invitational, which features games against BCU as well as Campbell and Elon. The tournament begins Friday with two non-Stetson games, first Bethune-Cookman vs. Elon at 11 a.m. and then BCU vs. Campbell at 1:30 p.m. The Hatters take the field first at 4 p.m. vs. Elon and then at 6:30 p.m. against Campbell. Invitational action continues on Saturday with Campbell and Elon at 11 a.m., followed by BCU and Elon at 1:30 p.m. Stetson round’s out Saturday’s schedule with games against Campbell at 4 p.m. and finally the Wildcats at 6:30 p.m.
Tickets start at $10 per day ($5 Sunday) and can be purchased online at GoHatters.com/tix or at the Patricia Wilson Field box office. Stetson students, faculty, and staff are free with a valid ID.
Subscription based live video of the Stetson games will be available on HatterVision. Live stats, the Stetson softball twitter feed, and the Hat-Alerts text messaging system will provide in-game updates as well.