Fighting back tears,
senior Kayla Romero
entered the final minute of her team's 52-35 win over Mesa Vista (Ojo Caliente, N.M.) last Saturday.
Rangerettes coach Mark Cassidy couldn't help but get emotional, too. After all, Romero was making her first appearance in a game since Dec. 22, a couple days after the 17-year-old learned she would have to battle Hodgkin's lymphoma for the second time in less than three years.
"I almost cried when I got on the court," Romero said. "I thought the Dec. 22 game (a 50-36 win over Santa Rosa) would be the last game I would ever play at Mora, but my doctor said if my blood cell count was high enough and if I was feeling well and strong on a day, I could play."
In Romero, Cassidy sees a precocious, tough-minded teenager who has defied great odds time and again.
"Kayla views cancer as a nuisance," Cassidy said. "Seriously, it's been a great inconvenience for her because it's getting in the way of her playing basketball. That's her number one passion."
Initially diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma when she was 15, the 5-foot-1 Romero went through a rigorous bout of chemotherapy treatment and radiation therapy spanning a four-month stretch before her junior year. The side effects of the treatment were brutal: Romero went from 116 pounds to a gaunt 86, lost her hair and was constantly nauseous. But she eventually regained her strength, and she thought her long nightmare was over.
"I was ready to get on with my life," Romero said.
However, the cancer returned this fall — numerous studies don't give an exact percentage of a recurrence of Hodgkin's lymphoma, but Romero's mom, Annette, said the chance of a recurrence in her daughter's case was less than 5 percent. Romero has been undergoing a more aggressive form of chemotherapy treatment since late December.
She still has two more rounds of chemotherapy before she'll undergo a procedure called hematopoietic stem cell transplantation, in which doctors will remove stem cells from Romero's own bone marrow to aid in her recovery.
If all goes well, the procedure is scheduled for late February or early March, shortly after the completion of the New Mexico state basketball tournament. Romero envisions cutting down the nets at the famed Pit in Albuquerque, something she's dreamed of since she was a kid.
"I remember watching (highlights of) both the boys and girls from Mora winning state (in 1998), and that's all I've ever wanted to do since," Romero said. "It's all I've ever wanted."
Mora (13-2) had a nice run last season, dropping a 46-43 overtime decision to Navajo Pine in the Class AA state semifinals. So close to winning it all, Romero worked hard in the offseason knowing the team had a solid nucleus of players returning for a state championship run. Known for her indefatigable work ethic and insatiable appetite to win, Romero earned the starting point guard role to start this season.
"Kayla is the definition of a classic point guard," Cassidy said. "She's more of a floor general than a scorer. She has this spirit and inner strength about her that rubs off on her teammates. I don't know how many more times Kayla will be able to suit up this season, so if I'm in a position where I have a chance to put her in the game and the situation is right, I'm going to do that. Basketball has been great therapy for her."
For many years, the basketball court has been Romero's psychologist, a place where she could go and get away from life's daily grinds. Now, more than ever, the hardwood has been her oasis, energizing her from the constant mental and physical anguish she has to endure in trying to beat cancer for a second time.
Even though Romero is undergoing a more aggressive treatment of chemotherapy the second time around, she's having an "easier" time dealing with the side effects.
"The first time was pretty rough for her because of the emotional toll," Annette said. "I mean, you're a teenage girl who all of a sudden loses her hair, that's not the easiest thing to handle. But she did, and that's why losing her hair again isn't as big a deal. She's grown a lot in the last couple of years."
Of that, there is no doubt. Despite the hardships, Romero has never felt sorry for herself. She simply hopes that the next day will be better than the last. While basketball has provided an outlet for her, it's Romero's faith that has given her an extra dose of unwavering determination.
"If God didn't think I could do it anymore, I don't think He would've put cancer in my path," Romero said.
Annette said she's particularly proud of her daughter for displaying a positive attitude despite her circumstances.
"Kayla has shown so much strength and faith with everything she's gone through," Annette said. "I've raised my kids with the attitude that everything happens for a reason. We might not understand it, but maybe God had a reason to put cancer in front of her. Maybe Kayla is going to be the one who inspires a person to find the cure for cancer. I know she's already an inspiration to many people."
Indeed, Romero's goal isn't merely to beat cancer for a second time, but to act with courage and conviction even in times of distress and uncertainty. Cassidy said Romero is a powerful story of the human spirit, the quintessential embodiment of a person dealing with great adversity and shining in the process.
Cancer often throws a monkey wrench in people's plans, especially when it comes to milestone moments. Romero doesn't plan on letting her latest ordeal with cancer prevent her from taking part in her high school graduation.
In May, she envisions herself walking across a stage to pick up her diploma. She'll reflect on some of the toughest moments of her life, days when there seemed to be no hope at all. Then she'll think about how determined she was to fight Hodgkin's lymphoma — one day at a time — leading to a moment of sweet redemption.
"I've learned a lot about myself in the last three years," Romero said. "I'm a lot stronger than I thought I was, and now I know that the only person who can come in between you and what you want to accomplish is you. I believe if you set your mind to it, anything is possible."
Romero is living proof.