If you were at Wednesday night’s women’s basketball game at the WVU Coliseum, you might have noticed the West Virginia players wore violet socks and violet shooting shirts. The Mountaineers were doing so in support of senior team manager SeLarra Armstrong, who is battling Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. Armstrong did not know the team would pour out so much support at the game—it was a surprise. This is her story.
Armstrong has been with the women’s basketball program since her freshman year. A native of Philadelphia, Armstrong came to WVU to study multidisciplinary studies with a minor in Spanish. Speaking fluently by her senior year, Spanish is something she plans to incorporate into a future career.
At the beginning of this school year, Armstrong discovered something that didn’t completely change these aspirations for her future endeavors, but tweaked them.
“One day I was in study hall and I felt this lump on my neck. I thought it was nothing because the night before I felt like I slept wrong, so all day I had been trying to crack it. It never went away, and it also never really bothered me. That was August,” explains Armstrong.
It wasn’t until mid-October when Armstrong sought medical care. The doctors felt the bump was mysterious and scheduled a biopsy for her in mid-November. The biopsy showed Lymphocytes, but not a whole lot more, so another biopsy was ordered. Three weeks later, Armstrong went in for an ultrasound to see if there was anything visible.
“The radiologist saw something mid-throat. It wasn’t bothering me, but that’s when they thought it could be Lymphoma, but they weren’t sure. On Dec. 27, they did a surgery to remove two lymph nodes, and on Dec. 31st, I went in for a check up on my stiches from surgery and they diagnosed me with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” says Armstrong with a tear in her eye.
At 22, Armstrong just received life-changing news—alone. But she knew, here in Morgantown, that she is never truly alone.
“I zoned out after he had said that. I called my mom and my doctor explained to her what I had,” explains Armstrong. “As soon as the doctor told me though, I thought I was going to faint, so I texted Toni (Oliverio, WVU women’s basketball director of operations), and my mom was worried so she called Terri (Howes, WVU Senior Associate Athletic Director for Sports Administration/ SWA) and they both came.”
First the diagnosis, then came the treatment plan. Armstrong was brought right up to the cancer center where she met Dr. Michael Craig, her oncologist, with Oliverio and Howes by her side.
“We talked about what was going to happen from here and we talked about what people go through with hair loss and vomiting and all of that, but my main focus at that point was, ‘I’m in my last semester of school, I’m going to graduate and I can’t take off. I didn’t work this hard and come this far, for nothing.’ It was kind of back and forth because at that point I had already registered and I was like, well this is my schedule and he was like well that’s too many classes. I didn’t care—I’m in my last semester,” says Armstrong.
The next step was to figure out a plan that would work for both treatment and graduation.
“Stephanie (White, Associate Director for Student-Athlete Academic Services), who is now the men’s advisor, was a really big help, along with Erin (Brady, Assistant Director for Student-Athlete Academic Services). Steph pushed for me.”
Not wanting to drop her Spanish minor, Armstrong understood there was no other way with her treatment schedule and the need to participate.
“I had to drop my minor because those two classes are 8:30 a.m. and 9:30 a.m., my chemo is on Thursday and those classes are on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. So if I go to chemo on Thursday, there’s no way I’m going to be able to go to classes on Friday; and Monday is the first day that I’m kind of feeling okay. Spanish classes are all about attendance because you’re speaking the language, so you need to participate. I can’t only participate one day out of the week.”
The Office of Accessibility Services at West Virginia University also played a role in assisting Armstrong with her new minor in communications, and setting up alternatives to class time for her to get her work done.
“My story was I want to graduate. I am in my last semester and forget cancer for real. I’m going to do me and not let this get in the way. What do you do? Go home? No. I thought about going home, but it would be too much of a distraction and I love being a basketball manager. It gets me up,” Armstrong says with a smile.
The day Armstrong was diagnosed she went to practice. Pat Biondo, assistant to Mike Carey, immediately worked with her to do some research on this type of cancer and lift her spirits by ordering purple bracelets for the team and staff to wear with sayings of “cancer sucks” and “no one fights alone!” The support grew.
wears hers every day and Christal Caldwell
wears hers on her game sneakers,” Armstrong notes. “Taylor Palmer
wears hers around her ankle. At the end of practice, coach Carey told the girls in the huddle and they came over and gave me a hug and asked a lot of questions. At that point, I really didn’t want to tell a lot of people. Now, I’m more okay with it; making posts about it and am starting to blog.”
Armstrong has come to terms with what she is dealing with. She just finished her second cycle of chemo and has three to five cycles left. A cycle is chemo twice a month, and the doctors work with her travel schedule to allow her to continue to travel with the team. Currently in stage 2A, Armstrong will have another PET scan on March 12 to see how the treatment is working.
“The whole staff and the girls have shown so much support. There are times that I don’t want to get up and then I’m like, I’m going to practice. I mean it hasn’t been rough now, but I know if I was home I wouldn’t be as focused as I am. I have the attitude that I don’t want people crying around me, feeling sorry for me.
“I don’t want to be treated different. My main focus is to get out of here with a degree. I want to be able to say I got my degree, while still battling cancer. I’m focused. I know if you have a positive attitude with it, then you can beat it.”
Armstrong has that positive and ambitious attitude daily.
“I can’t let cancer beat me. You sit there and go to chemo, get your premeds, get hooked up to the machine with my port –do the first medicine, the second medicine, the third and fourth, and then they tell me to rest. What am I resting for? I’m good. Since I’m much younger than most people, I have a lot of energy. But like I said, it’s a mind game. If I can get up, then I’m getting up. I’m not laying here all day—it’s just not me.”
Continuing to fight this battle, Armstrong understands things could have been different. She has words of advice for others.
“The lump on my neck—I could have clearly ignored it because it never bothered me. If you feel something, go get checked,” says Armstrong. “You just have to stay motivated. I have so much support from my family at home and my mom always wants to be here, but sometimes I just want to be by myself. You have to do what you have to do.”
This experience with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma has put life into perspective for Armstrong, but the good news is, she never feels alone and understands the support she has here at West Virginia University.
“Being in my last semester here, and I know the things that I want to do and still want to get those things done. I still want to graduate, I still want to go to grad school and I still want to travel and continue my life. I’m 22 years old. Am I supposed to let cancer beat me?
“Let’s just say I have a good team. I have a support team, and I believe I have been blessed to have been diagnosed and have basketball. Without being around basketball I don’t know how it would be right now—I don’t. I’m still able to travel, mess with the girls and be me. It makes you look at life different. You know, you complain about the little things, and you never know what can happen to you. You just never know. People have it so much worse than you. To complain about the littlest things—it could be worse—you never know.”