The Diagnosis

Katie Collier settled into a seat in the first row. The redshirt freshman wore a pair of purple shoes, matching shorts and a gray Washington T-shirt. A purple headband helped keep her long, braided blond hair in place.

She looked out across the Alaska Airlines Arena floor. Several teammates were shooting at a basket on the far end of the court. She started to smile.

Two years after beating cancer and a year removed from a knee injury that ended her freshman season before it started, Collier is happy. She’s healthy. Her life feels normal.

“Where am I now?” she asked before pausing. “I’m here. I’ve just got to live for now, because it’s so great.”

She refused to let cancer, or the injury, define her. Instead, those experiences refined her.   

“It sounds weird, but I’m so happy I got cancer,” Collier said. “It’s opened up so many doors for me.”

The diagnosis

When Collier woke up in a hotel room during her official visit to Washington, her gums were bleeding. She knew something was wrong.

She turned to Heather Corral – her roommate during the trip – and said, “Heather, there’s blood on my pillow.”

“I almost didn’t know what to think,” said Corral, who is now Collier’s teammate and good friend, but at the time had known her for less than two days. “My head was spinning. I couldn’t even imagine what she felt.”

More than a year after the injury, Collier is back on the floor. She is fighting for minutes. She is inspiring her teammates.

It was Sept. 24, 2011. Collier was supposed to attend Washington’s football game against California. Instead, she ended up at the hospital. She was diagnosed with acute promyelocytic leukemia.

Collier turned the diagnosis into a challenge. She took two chemotherapy pills a day. She made daily trips to the Seattle Cancer Care Alliance for an arsenic drip joined by her mother, Ann – a breast cancer survivor – and her sister, Megan.

The cafeteria at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance had “the best lemon loaves in the whole entire world,” and Megan made sure Katie got one each time the family made the trip north from their home in Covington.

After delivering the sweet treat, Megan would climb into the small hospital bed with her sister while she went through treatment.

“We’d tell my mom we worked on homework, but sometimes that didn’t happen,” Collier said with a laugh.

Despite everything Collier endured, she somehow found the energy to play her senior season at Seattle Christian School.

“At the time, that’s just what you have to do,” Collier said. “If you want something bad enough, you’re just going to do it.”

“Thank God I got cancer or I wouldn’t be able to communicate and relate with the kids the way I’m able to. ”

Two years later, she’s not quite sure how she found the strength.

“If someone else did that, I would be like ‘Holy cow, that seems crazy,’” she said.

Six months after her diagnosis, Collier was cancer free. Her family celebrated with a trip to Chicago for the McDonald’s All-American basketball game. Her story was featured on national TV.”

Looking back on the attention, she started to laugh. “I’m not that interesting,” she said. “It’s just me.”

For Collier, that game served as a way to put the cancer behind her.

“That game sealed it,” she said. “I’m fine now. I’m just going to move on.”

 

 

The Knee Injury

When Collier started preparing for her freshman year she felt “on top of the world.” Then she stepped on the court for the first open gym of her college career. She was on the floor with Corral and a few players from the program’s past.

It was supposed to be a simple step forward in her transition to Division I basketball. But 15 minutes into that first scrimmage, she suffered the injury that sent her to the sideline.

She caught the ball in the paint. She faked one way, turned the other. She planted her right leg. It locked. Her kneecap felt like it was on the inside of her leg. She heard the pop. She fell down.

“I was just hoping and praying it wasn’t my ACL,” Collier said. “It ended up being my ACL, MCL and meniscus.”

In a way, the knee injury was worse than the cancer. She fought the cancer and kept playing. The knee injury forced her off the court.

“I felt physically fine, but my body was not allowing me to play,” she said.

Always positive in public, Collier started to question her future: “Am I supposed to be here?”

The doubt didn’t last long.

“There is a plan that I don’t know about,” Collier said at the time. “For some reason, maybe I’m not supposed to be playing this season.”

Corral was there during the cancer diagnosis. She was there for the knee injury.

“You can’t meet a stronger, braver individual,” said Corral, who has endured her own injury issues. “I have the utmost respect for her, because I definitely wasn’t able to handle it as well as her. She just knew that everything happens for a reason. She believed she could get through this.”

More than a year after the injury, Collier is back on the floor. She is fighting for minutes. She is inspiring her teammates.

“Every time I think I’m tired, or things are hard, I see her smiling and it inspires me to realize that there are a lot of things that go on in life that you take for granted,” Washington coach Mike Neighbors said. “It’s inspirational every time I see her out there.”

No Stopping Her Now

Collier spent three months last summer working as an intern with the Ronald McDonald House, an organization that supports seriously ill children and their families.

Each Friday, children gathered for “Krafts with Katie.” During these sessions, a young girl, about 8 years old, would sit on Collier’s lap and play with her hair. The little girl, who always wore pink and loved to cover herself in jewelry, was going through chemotherapy. She had lost her hair.

Collier never lost her long locks during her chemotherapy sessions, so she didn’t mind sharing with the girl.

“Oh, your hair is so beautiful,” the girl said during each visit, so Collier would drape her hair around the girl’s head to create a makeshift wig.

The girl was one of many who bonded with Collier during her three-month internship.

“I’ve never ever heard so many kids say someone’s name so many times,” said Judy Adams, the manager of volunteer services at Ronald McDonald House Charities of Western Washington and Alaska. “Katie, what do you think about this? Katie, can I help you? Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie, Katie."

“She was delightful to have here. Not only is she delightful in general, she has such a good understanding of what a lot of our kids and families are going through.”

Collier is majoring in communications and, while she hasn’t settled on a career path, she wants to continue working with kids.

“Thank God I got cancer or I wouldn’t be able to communicate and relate with the kids the way I’m able to,” Collier said.

That is a fitting statement from someone Neighbors calls a “silver lining.”

Now in her second year at Washington, Collier is comfortable with her classes. She knows her way around campus. But she is still finding her way on the basketball floor.

“I feel for her, because I know how much extra she’s had to go through and then deal with the experience that she’s a freshman on the court,” Neighbors said. “She’s learning to deal with pace of play, speed of play, strength of play and it’s hard to throw that stuff on top of any kid.”

While she is still figuring things out, Neighbors isn’t worried. “I know she’s capable of handling all kinds of stuff,” he said.

One of the first things people reference when describing Collier is her smile, but on the court, she’s got a mean streak. Neighbors called it “refreshing.”

That streak is derived in part from the strength she showed while overcoming the adversity that has been thrust in front of her.

“I don’t have stuff like that because I haven’t had to deal with the things that, even at 44, she’s had to deal with at 20,” Neighbors said.

“If you want something bad enough, you’re just going to do it.”

Collier’s first Division I game was Oct. 31, the Huskies’ preseason opener against Concordia. Her parents, Ann and Mark, arrived early.

As the Huskies warmed up, Ann soaked in the scene. Tears tumbled. 

“I couldn’t believe she was to that point where she was actually going to go out there and play,” Ann said. “I want her to do well. I want her to play hard, and I want her to get minutes and everything, but in reality, it’s just such a blessing to have her out there, because we didn’t know if she was going to live or not.”

Collier plays with a brace on her right knee, but doesn’t think about it. She doesn’t worry about a second bout with cancer. The last two years of Collier’s life were a “phase.” She endured the challenge. She survived. She feels stronger because of it.

“It’s over and, hopefully, I’ll never have to deal with it again,” she said. “If I do, then I’ll just deal with it.”

Her primary concern right now is living in the moment. Before putting on her brace and stepping on the court for practice, she thought about all the good things in her life, smiled and said, “I’m lovin’ it.”