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Logan Hanson Logan Hanson

Virginia Tech lacrosse’s Mary Griffin continues to inspire after cancer diagnosis

BLACKSBURG, Va. (BVM) – Mary Griffin did not expect her collegiate lacrosse experience to go this way. The youngest of five in a lacrosse family headed by a mother who coached the sport, Griffin was always near the top of her sport playing for Roland Park Country School in Maryland. The expectation was that Griffin would come into the Hokies program and, after some learning of the program and team, would jump into the starting lineup. In March 2020, Griffin earned her first start in what would be the team’s last game before the COVID-19 pandemic and the beginning of a long journey back for Griffin.

“If I could describe my lacrosse experience here at Tech so far, I like to say it hasn’t really started yet,” Griffin said. “It sounds a little weird, I’m a junior now, so you’d say, ‘OK you have two years under your belt’ but both of those seasons have been absolutely crazy for different reasons.”

Following the abrupt end of the 2020 season, Griffin was pushing herself even harder in the offseason, looking for team redemption as well as to prove herself as a full-time starter. As she conditioned her body throughout the summer, the sophomore defender was prepared to make the coaching staff notice her come fall practices. However, when the fall practices came, Griffin one day did not breeze through it as she had during her summer training because a pain in her right side prevented her from finishing, forcing her to visit the athletic trainer.

“It was during a conditioning drill that day, I started off fine,” Griffin said. “By the time the third [sprint] had started I said, ‘Something’s wrong, something’s wrong’ and ran off the field and ran to the trainer. It was immense pain, something I never felt before on my right side.”

On the athletic trainer’s advice, Griffin got a CT scan to check the area for appendicitis. However, the result was much worse. A tumor roughly the size of a lacrosse ball was located on Griffin’s pancreas and she was ordered to get a biopsy.

“That was an initial shock. That was so crazy,” Griffin said. “So the first words out of my mouth were, ‘Am I gonna die? Is this cancer?’ It was the last thing I expected to hear. It was total initial shock, I went through the seven stages of grief in like 10 minutes.”

The biopsy results revealed the last thing any person wants to hear – cancer. In a moment, Griffin’s life was turned on its head.

“Hearing that news for the first time was definitely another time that was the last thing I expected to hear,” Griffin said. “I remember my brain flipped completely, I could see my mom on the phone screen and that kind of was the most upsetting part. Not how I was taking the news, but more worried for her.”

Griffin had to battle through a lot, the emotion of the diagnosis, the realization that her lacrosse career may be over and a brief battle with COVID-19, which she had tested positive for the day of the biopsy which prevented friends and family from being physically there to support her. While her life had changed, Griffin was determined to not let her cancer diagnosis define her and prevent her from living her life.

“I remember telling [my mom], I just looked at her and was like, ‘I promise you I’m ok. I know you’re going to worry about me, but I’ve got this. We can handle this. We’ve been through hell and back and we can do it again,’” Griffin said. “Reassuring her made me feel so much better.”

Despite her cancer diagnosis, Griffin returned to the Hokies just three months post-surgery where she’d play in three games. (Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics)

On Nov. 11, 2020, Griffin underwent surgery which removed the tumor as well as her spleen and 40% of her pancreas. Thankfully, the mass had not spread to her other organs which opened the possibility that the surgery could mark the end of the cancer for Griffin, though she still had to get scans to monitor the area. The next thing on Griffin’s mind was getting back on the lacrosse field.

“I kind of spun cancer to being the best thing to ever happen to me because I had such a new perspective all my teammates didn’t have it was that you could have it taken away in any second, any day and life is so precious and can change in a blink of an eye,” Griffin said. “I think [enjoying lacrosse] was something that I had to relearn and relearn to love because I think I was going through the motions and so nervous to play. But until I finally let go and really enjoyed where I was at I was getting better physically and mentally and enjoying the season again.”

Slowly making her way through practices, Griffin began to return to form. As she was slowly cleared for more and more activities, it appeared she would be able to return. Somehow, Griffin did just that, returning to game action just three months post surgery.

“I remember getting my name called off the bench. I was like ‘Oh my God!’ I was running around trying to figure out where all my stuff is,” Griffin said. “And I went on the field and one of my teammates turned and was like, ‘You’re back. You did it.’ And I was like, ‘I did! Here I am!’”

Though her playing time would be limited to just three games, the fact that she returned at all was a testament to her strength and determination. However, even with her story helping to inspire others, Griffin didn’t feel like her work was done.

A former high school teammate of Griffin’s, Marsie Salvatori, had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma around the same time as Griffin’s diagnosis. A player for the Stanford Cardinal lacrosse team, Salvatori had to endure a similar journey that Griffin did, growing the two’s bond. Through their friendship, the duo decided to help make a difference by teaming up with the HEADstrong Foundation, which provides services to cancer patients and their families, to lead their Game Hair Havoc program which was an interactive online fundraiser for student-athletes to help bring awareness to cancer and cancer research.

“It was really, really cool to see the campaign kind of be surrounded by us two,” Griffin said. “It was really fun to get my team involved and really step up and get excited about something I was really passionate about and really meant a lot to me and my family.”

Griffin wouldn’t be done with telling her story though. On June 10, 2021, she launched her own podcast titled Not A 10 which highlights people, mainly student-athletes, and their hardships. Her first episode discussed her own cancer diagnosis and journey and has grown from there with 16 episodes covering everything from the journeys of paralympic athletes, struggles with mental health and acceptance of one’s sexuality, among other topics. 

Returning to the field as a junior, Griffin hopes to finally showcase her full potential after two “crazy” seasons with the Hokies. (Credit: Virginia Tech Athletics)

“The whole perspective of ‘Not A 10’ is for people to share their hardships and their journeys and what came out of them and why their life isn’t a 10 out of 10 and why they’re kind of happy and grateful it’s not a 10,” Griffin said. “Because out of such turmoil and confusion and such hardship comes a lot of good and a lot of lessons people need to learn but unfortunately you can only learn if you go through something really hard.”

Griffin hopes that the podcast will show people that student-athletes have similar struggles as anyone else and hopes their stories can inspire others going through the same or similar situations.

“Every episode I’ve put out, someone gets something good out of it,” Griffin said. “I get one or two DMs which is why I do what I do. It’s like, ‘Thank you so much for talking about this topic I can really relate,’” Griffin said. “It’s really opened my eyes that a lot of people are really, really strong and are so incredible and so wise and are out there really being the change.”

With her junior season set to begin on Feb. 12 with a game against Jacksonville, Griffin will look to pick up her game where she left off pre-diagnosis. While the journey has not been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination, Griffin is able to continue to do the thing she loves while helping others through their own struggles. As she works her way towards the start of the season, Griffin continues to be thankful for the opportunities she receives and will continue to inspire anyone who crosses her path.

“I think that is my greatest asset having cancer,Griffin said. “It sounds crazy but it is.”