The Times West Virginian

Bob Herzel

February 20, 2014

HERTZEL COLUMN: Student manager fighting illness gets huge boost

MORGANTOWN — SeLarra Armstrong thought it was just going to be another night in her role as student manager for West Virginia University’s women’s basketball team as she showed up at the Coliseum on Wednesday.

A big night, yes, considering No. 13 West Virginia was taking on No. 12 Oklahoma State in a game that meant much to their post-season seedings and the Mountaineers’ battle to win a regular-season Big 12 championship.

But she didn’t know how big a night, for this was a night the players, coaches and staff had secretly planned to dedicate and honor her.

The 22-year-old senior from Philadelphia would have rather not have had the attention she was about to get, considering that they were honoring her for her fight against Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

They went through warmups wearing violet socks and shooting shirts that carried her name “SELARRA” on the back ,and all wore violet bracelets proclaiming “Cancer Sucks!” or “No One Fights Alone!” All wore a violet ribbon representing Hodgkin’s Lymphoma awareness.

Then, at the first media timeout, with WVU out to a 12-0 lead, there was a video tribune from coach Mike Carey and her teammates while she was brought out to center court and presented with a gift basket and a generous donation from the Hoops N Heels Club.

“It was so special, a shocker,” she said after the game. “And it was a relief off my shoulders we were able to win so big.”

It was a relief off Mike Carey’s shoulders, too.

“I knew we were honoring her at the first timeout, and I was hoping we’d be playing good because you wanted to be involved and to clap,” Carey said, not wanting to be using the timeout berating his team. “She’s a great young lady, part of the family.”

It was anything but a Happy New Year for Armstrong, who received her diagnosis of Stage 2A Hodgkin’s Lymphoma on New Year’s Eve.

It had started at the beginning of the school year.

“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.

So, she just went about her business until mid-October when she decided she had to find out what was going on.

A couple of biopsies were followed with an ultrasound.

“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. 31, I went in for a checkup on my stitches from surgery, and they diagnosed me with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,” Armstrong said.

You can only imagine the moment.

“I zoned out after he had said that. I called my mom, and my doctor explained to her what I had,” Armstrong recalled. “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.”

Armstrong was taken right to the WVU Cancer Center where she, along with Oliverio and Howes, met with her oncologist, Dr. Michael Craig.

“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,” Armstrong said.

It was a brave reaction, an encouraging one for she was in for a battle but seemed to be convinced she has a lot to fight for.

She dropped her minor, because with the chemo and the basketball and just living life it was going to be too much.

“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 OK. 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,” she explained.

Armstrong has 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.”

Follow Bob Hertzel on Twitter @bhertzel.

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