SPOKANE, Wash. (BVM) — Who knew that joint pain and exhaustion in a 12-year-old could lead to the diagnosis of stage 3 ovarian dysgerminoma? Not many people would think that, certainly not Katie Sierhuis or her family. As a star hockey player in Manitoba, Canada, Sierhuis had everything she could have wanted: a loving family, good friends, academic success, and extreme athletic abilities. Never would she have thought all of those things would have to be put aside in order to fight for her life.
Prior to her cancer diagnosis, Sierhuis lived a very average life in a suburb of Winnipeg, Manitoba. She grew up very close with her family and specifically recalls bonding with them over their shared love of sports. Sierhuis participated in every sport she could think of as a child, from gymnastics to ballet, to soccer, and finally, hockey. While she loved participating in all of these, she found a large passion for hockey and soccer. All of her siblings, as well as her dad, played hockey, so it only felt natural for Sierhuis to as well. She was drawn to these big team sports because she liked working with a group of motivated people in order to accomplish a goal. She never really saw the appeal of individual sports; she liked the internal competition that big teams have.
That internal competitiveness helped Sierhuis through one of the hardest things she has ever endured. In the fall of 2014, Sierhuis started to notice some changes in her energy levels and physical well-being. After months of fatigue, dizziness, and joint pains Sierhuis’ mom took her to the doctor who then referred her to a child arthritis specialist. The specialist did a full-body exam and took about 12 vials of blood to get tested for “everything under the sun,” Sierhuis recalled. That same day while Sierhuis was at her piano lesson, her mom burst into the room and rushed her to the hospital. She had received a phone call from the arthritis specialist telling her that Sierhuis’ calcium levels in her blood were dangerously high and that she needed to go to the hospital right away.
“I went with my mom, completely oblivious to what that trip would entail,” Sierhuis said. “They did an ultrasound and then a CT in what felt like the middle of the night, which revealed a football-sized tumor attached to one of my ovaries.”
The following Monday, Sierhuis had a major surgery to have the tumor, which resulted in a nine-day post-op hospitalization until she was allowed to return home. After the surgery, Sierhuis thought she would get right back to normal again with no pain or fatigue. However, she was proven wrong. At an appointment three weeks post-op, Sierhuis was diagnosed with stage 3 ovarian dysgerminoma. Ovarian dysgerminoma is a very rare cancer that occurs in less than 1% of childhood cancer cases, and Sierhuis was part of that 1%. The reason that it was classified as stage 3 is because another tumor the size of a softball had spread to her lymph node near her kidney.
After diagnosis, Sierhuis immediately started chemotherapy, going through three rounds. The rounds consisted of three days of treatment every 30 days and entered into remission in the fall of 2015. Since Sierhuis was so young, she found her cancer diagnosis to be a large mental barrier. Being a middle schooler is hard as it is. Everyone wants to be considered “cool” and to fit in, yet Sierhuis found herself feeling isolated and like she was a burden.
Her cancer left people thinking that she always needed help. This started even prior to her diagnosis. Sierhuis felt like she wasn’t good enough and could not understand why it was her that the universe decided to give her this challenge. She put so much value in her athletic performance and in the way that others saw her that she found herself lost without much purpose, which was very much the opposite of what she had.
While Sierhuis had these negative thoughts and emotions, she also experienced some true acts of love and hope during her battle with cancer. One memory Sierhuis holds fondly is the “meal train” that her extended family created in which families would sign up to bring meals either to the hospital or to her house.
“It was really cool to see everyone come together to do something to uplift my family and make this hard time easier,” Sierhuis said. “My parents did not have to stress about putting food on the table while they were dealing with this, which made a huge impact for my family.”
Not only did Sierhuis’ family rally to give immediate support, they also created a foundation called “Katie’s Krew,” which is a dragon boat team that fundraises for cancer research. In its six years of existence, Katie’s Krew has raised over $300,000, which makes Sierhuis extremely excited for the future of the foundation.
After she fully recovered from ovarian dysgerminoma, Sierhuis wanted to jump right back into sports, and that is when she discovered rowing. In the spring of 2019, Team Manitoba coach Janine Stephens was at the high school that Sierhuis’ mom was working at, recruiting for the Canada Games that would take place that summer. Sierhuis’ mom immediately went home and told Sierhuis and her brother, Riley, that they should try out. They both tried out and Katie immediately fell in love with the sport. Since recovering from cancer, Katie felt like she had fallen too far behind in soccer and hockey to catch up in terms of skill development, so rowing was a fresh start for her.
“I loved seeing myself improve every time I came to practice. I felt myself getting stronger and I quickly became obsessed with the sport,” Katie said. “ I knew that no matter what I had going on during my day, I could go to practice and focus on rowing, and not worry about anything else.”
Since starting her rowing career, Katie has competed at some of the highest levels for youth in Canada and was recruited to row Division I at Gonzaga University. Now in her freshman year at GU, Katie has been crushing it, both on the water and on the rowing machine. She is excited to grow as an athlete and individual during her time at Gonzaga.