Miami soccer player fights cancer with heart, grit

October 10, 2008

CORAL GABLES, Fla. -- The text message came in May while Austen Everett was studying for finals. All it did was save her life.

A friend wrote to say he broke his thumb and was in the hospital. Everett, a goalkeeper on Miami's soccer team, packed her books and rushed over. Once there, the crippling back pain she'd ignored for weeks flared again. Everett grudgingly left her friend and headed to the emergency room.

"Be right back," she said.

She never came back. She was almost gone for good.

Talk about a lucky break. If Miami basketball player Cyrus McGowan hadn't smashed his thumb on the rim that day five months ago, Everett wouldn't have gone to the hospital, doctors wouldn't have found her back pain was caused by a football-sized mass wedged next to her stomach, and she wouldn't have been immediately admitted for emergency surgery.

That tumor was non-Hodgkins lymphoma -- stage 4, the worst kind -- and she could have been dead within four months. Instead, four months later, Everett was practicing with the Hurricanes, never feeling more alive.

"Dying of cancer was never really an option for me," Everett said.

She says that with a laugh, but knows it was very close to reality. Now she is back in school, back on the soccer team, taking classes toward her political science degree. A shaved head and long scar on her stomach is the only evidence that she was deathly sick.

"It's so weird that this was all left to chance," Everett said. "But I feel great. Cancer, it's not so bad."

When doctors in South Florida first saw the tumor in Everett's stomach this spring, they had no idea what was happening. The first conclusion was that a lymph node had gone haywire, and the family's worst fear -- cancer -- was an afterthought. A possibility, yes, but most doctors were convinced it was something else.

"Congratulations," one of them told Everett. "You're a medical mystery."

So Everett went back about her life in what friends called her typically happy-go-lucky style. She was going to attend summer school and get ready for the 2008 season, when she was slated to be the Hurricanes' starter. She was going to get back into training once the staples holding her stomach together were removed.

Everything seemed fine.

And then the phone rang.

"Austen, we need to talk," June Leahy, Everett's mother, said from the family's home in Seattle.

Thinking the chat would be about her shopping, two 'C' words popped into Everett's mind: credit card.

She wasn't even close. Her mother was calling with two other words in mind -- cancer and chemotherapy.

"My level of composure was not nearly as great as hers was," Leahy said, "But the great thing about this is that Austen has dealt with this with optimism and humor. It's just been the most remarkable gift. It's the most bizarre thing. All the elements that I thought would be so challenging -- telling her, losing her hair, all those things -- became so easy because she just dealt with it."

Everett flew home, still not fully believing what the ramifications might be. Cancer was in her abdomen, chest and neck. If it had reached her brain, the prognosis would have been grim.

For the next 2½ months, every other Friday, she would be facing what she called the biggest opponent of her life.

"This whole story, the way this whole story happened, it's amazing to me," Miami coach Tricia Taliaferro said.

One of Everett's first thoughts, when realizing the effects of chemo, was that she was going to lose the blonde hair that flowed to the middle of her back.

That's where the competitor in Everett began coming out. She would beat cancer to the punch.

Everett vowed not to let the disease have its way with her. So one day, with two friends -- one of them 25-year-old Nathan Jensen, who was diagnosed with another form of non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 2002 -- Everett decided to shave her head. She looked at the floor, saw her blonde locks and remembers feeling invigorated.

"Showers go a lot faster now," she said.

Everett always equated everything to sports. So before going to the hospital for the eight-hour doses of chemotherapy every other Friday, she would prepare as if were a soccer game. Her iPod would blare Rihanna and Coldplay to get her blood flowing. When pulling the hospital gown over her head, she'd imagine it was a goalie jersey. She'd even talk a little smack, dissing cancer as if it were an opponent on the field.

A week after finishing chemo, Everett took a taxi from the airport to the campus. She pulled her suitcase across the track ringing the soccer field. Her teammates wondered about the bald woman coming their way.

"The first thing she wanted to do was see her team," Taliaferro said. "That was a big moment."

Once Everett's smile came into view everyone ran over to her.

"You can't put words to what she felt or anything," Miami midfielder Katie Oddo said. "She tries to explain it, you listen and you're like, 'You're kidding.' I still can't believe it. I think she looks adorable with no hair, and that's the only thing that reminds me that she had a problem."

This summer, not long after shaving her head, Everett was working at the University of Washington's soccer camp with a group of 7-year-olds. One girl raised her hand while Everett was introducing herself to the group.

"Um, Austen, what happened to your hair?" the girl asked.

Everett said she was running so fast that it fell out, an answer she came up with on the spot.

The child was impressed. Camp continued.

Everett has two wigs but rarely wears them. One day last week, she was driving near campus and a carload of guys slowed to get a good look at the tanned, pretty 21-year-old. They asked for her number and wouldn't take no for an answer. Everett took her hand and slowly lifted the wig off her scalp -- and the car sped away.

"See," Everett said, rubbing her head. "Cancer has its perks."

She's a regular visitor to children's hospitals in South Florida, seeing young girls who have various forms of cancer and probably will not recover. Those kids, Everett has found, are embarrassed about losing their hair, about being sick, about looking different from other kids their age. Everett tries to tell them it's OK.

"Her bald head is a badge of honor," her mother said.

Those moments with terminally ill children are perhaps the only times Everett gets depressed.

"I got cancer for a reason," Everett said. "It's a gift. I need to do something with it."

Her fight isn't over.

Just this week, doctors continued debating whether she will need radiation therapy. Either way, Everett insists that it won't keep her off the practice field, or make her abandon her quest to play at some point this season.

She likes to say that she "had" cancer, as if it's already gone, but acknowledges that she isn't certain what the future will bring.

"Everyone told her to quit," Oddo said. "Instead, she lifted herself up. That's miraculous. Everyone should know her story, that you can get through anything."

Everett's fitness isn't anywhere near what she'd like it to be. She gets tired all the time. Naps are vital. The chemo affected her memory, and friends and doctors help her keep her schedule straight.

"She is so strong," Jensen said. "We joke about it all the time, Lance Armstrong, Live Strong. She'll say, 'Yep, I lived strong today. Got up, went to practice, went to class, threw up twice.' Somehow, she carries it extremely well."

And now, she'll carry it with her forever.

Last weekend, Everett got a tattoo on the inside of her left wrist. In flowing script, it reads "Aug 08" -- the day of her last round of chemo, the day she'll never forget, the day she believes represents a far bigger victory than anything that happens on the soccer field.

"There's a lot of things I'm going to do in my life. So it's not my time," Everett said. "Clearly, it's not my time."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press