SPOKANE, Wash. (BVM) — Many people struggle with returning to a sport after a long–term injury, but imagine returning after being diagnosed with cancer, going through strenuous rounds of chemotherapy, and then beating it. That is beyond a struggle that most injuries can cause. However, there was no better person that could have been put to the test than Gonzaga tennis alum Katie Day.
Day’s difficult battle with cancer started in the fall of her senior year of college, but her strength was built through her years of competing in sports. Day started playing tennis when she was just 5 years old. She instantly fell in love. From the competitiveness to the emotions, to the hours of dedicated practice needed to perfect the sport, Day embraced it all. Throughout her youth and early teen years, Day continuously grew in her sport, school, and friendships. Collegiate tennis wasn’t really on her mind until she turned 16. Day had been playing unstoppably and it showed in her match results. This hard work proved to her, and everyone else, that she could compete at a high level, especially after being ranked as one of the top eight best U16 women’s tennis players in the Pacific Northwest.
After coming to the realization that she wanted to play collegiate tennis, Day started looking at different universities with competitive programs. After consideration, she committed to play tennis at Gonzaga University in the fall of her senior year due to the school’s strong sense of community, faith-based foundation, reputable academics, and the amazing tennis program. Gonzaga felt like home from the moment she stepped onto campus when she visited for the first time.
That feeling of home never went away for Day. While it was a new experience and environment, she adapted fast and learned that she had to enjoy it while she could because she would only ever be a Gonzaga student once.
“It was a new experience and was my first time living on my own away from home. I basically had a full-time job (20 hours a week of tennis) as well as my academic work so I was very overwhelmed in the beginning and sleep-deprived,” Day said. “However, I got used to the rigorous schedule and learned to enjoy every moment that I had at Gonzaga.”
With college, there is almost always a guarantee that there will be highs and lows that confirm or make you question your college decision. For Day, she experienced highs and lows of various degrees. One high that accumulated throughout all four years was her ability to create lifelong friendships with people from all over the world. With such an inclusive and strong community at Gonzaga, Day had no problem meeting and creating bonds with new people. She also learned a lot about herself and how she handles situations. She did not know how to control some of her emotions, which ended up being a detriment to her mental health. However, she used those low moments to grow and fully understand herself in order to grow.
The biggest challenge of Day’s college career, and life, came her senior year when she was diagnosed with Primary Mediastinal B-Cell Lymphoma. During the fall of 2019, Day started to feel sick but did not think too much of it.
“At first I thought it was all stress-related because all of my symptoms were symptoms of extreme levels of stress/anxiety,” Day said of the early symptoms.
She started to lose weight quickly, fatigued easily, had no appetite, stomach pains, body aches, discomfort, and shortness of breath. After months of pain and discomfort, Day went to a doctor on January 2, 2020. The doctor took a chest x-ray to see if she had some sort of fluid in her chest. Turns out, it was not fluid, but a 3-5 inch mass on the left side of her chest that was 100% cancerous. That was when she found out that she had an aggressive moving cancer that needed to be treated right away. So, she dropped everything, tennis, school, and a social life to start 18 weeks of intense chemo at OHSU, one of the best hospitals in the Pacific Northwest.
While Day has always been a positive person with a bubbly personality, even she faced some unimaginable lows that left her feeling hopeless.
“One example I vividly remember is being so nauseous leaning over the toilet, with mouth sores that felt like my mouth was burning and on my knees crying because I felt like it was never going to end,” Day said.
Facing a cancer this aggressive, Day needed all the support that she could get. Luckily, she had an amazing family, supportive friends, and an entire athletic department that stood by her every day, no matter how hard it got or how hopeless she felt. These people never lost hope that Day could beat her cancer. Day experienced support and love that she had never had before, and it played a big factor in her battle.
Besides the support of friends and family, Day really leaned on her passion for tennis to get her through her rounds of chemo. When she was going through treatment, she thought of it as a tennis match.
“Set one was my first three rounds of chemo treatments, which were not bad at all side effects-wise,” Day said. “I thought I had the chemo thing down. Then came the last three rounds, which knocked me on my butt (literally). I have never felt so sick and helpless and it felt like it was never going to end. However, I came out on the other side.”
Set three were some bad scans that left everyone, including Day, quite scared of what was to come next. While they could have immediately gone into more treatment, they decided to hold out a few months without starting any treatment to see how it would go. Day proved her strength and started to get better. Soon enough she went into remission.
“I won the match!” Day said.
In November of 2020, Katie beat the cancer that she thought would never end, but her story is not done yet. After beating cancer and getting to a point where she felt strong and healthy, she decided to continue her tennis and academic career at Durham University in England.
“I felt like there was a part of me missing. Something that has been a part of me my whole life,” Day said.
She knew that her time with competitive tennis was not over. If she hadn’t decided to take a leap of faith, move across the world to England to pursue a master’s and another year of tennis, she would probably be working a 9-5 job and living at her parents’ house to save up money to eventually move out. However, she realized that she had her entire life to work. She wanted to take advantage of the opportunities she had when she had them because she knew if she passed up Durham, then she would regret it for the rest of her life.
Now, Day gets to enjoy tennis without the worries of burning out too quickly or thinking about her next step in life. With cancer came the realization that she could accomplish anything and Day knew that she had to have one last go at completing her tennis career on a high note.