by Tyler Richardson / @Ty_richardson
Blood camouflaged Katie Collier’s pillow as she opened her eyes in a downtown Seattle hotel room, the red stains leaving an obscure message on the white pillowcase.
The 6-3, future McDonald’s All-American knew something wasn’t right. Her body was sluggish and blood leaked from her gums. Even though she hates showing weakness, Collier—who was on her recruiting visit at the University of Washington—called her parents to tell them she needed to go home.
Making that call at that time was a hard decision. Toughness is the core of what made Collier one of the most recruited high schoolers in the nation and had college coaches salivating at the thought of injecting her game into their lineups. But in the end, that simple call may have saved her life.
Her parents weren’t too worried as they drove back home. “Katie had been sick just two weeks earlier,” her mom, Ann Collier thought. “She probably just has mono.”
While Katie slept, Ann googled her symptoms. One word stuck out bigger than her daughter running a fast break: Leukemia.
Ann heard her name called out from upstairs. Blood was spewing from Katie’s mouth almost uncontrollably. The two got in the car and headed for the emergency room, Katie shoving napkins in her mouth to stop the steady flow.
A slow sense of fear crept up Ann’s spine as nurses ran tests and set IVs in Katie’s arm. That daunting “L” word dancing in the back of her head. Cancer has been a companion of the Collier family. Four years earlier, Ann was diagnosed with breast cancer. She cringed at the thought of her youngest daughter enduring the same pain.
The look on the doctor’s face told Ann all she needed to know. Call it mother’s intuition or a survivor’s sense, but she turned to Katie and uttered words so foreign to her that her mind couldn’t process them.
“I think you have leukemia,” she said.
Katie shrugged the eight-letter word off as soon as it fell upon her ears. Leukemia? Sure she felt sick—barely able to stay awake as doctors searched for a diagnosis—but that type of stuff doesn’t happen to a healthy, strong, athletic, 18-year-old girl.
The doctor confirmed Ann’s deepest fear: Not only did Katie have leukemia, but the diagnosis was that she had a rare form, called acute myeloid leukemia. Her family scrambled in the waiting room to look up AML on their iPad. What they found sickened them.
“It said a 40 percent survival rate over five years,” Ann said. “We were living every parents’ worst nightmare. It was so surreal and shocking because she is so healthy. Who would have though that?”
Hours earlier, the toughest decision facing the Collier family was which college Katie would play for next year. Now, they were wondering if she would even be alive to make that choice. Her dreams of leading a team to an NCAA Championship quickly faded as doctors told her she would not play basketball again.
With terms like “survival rates,” “bone marrow transplants” and “chemo” now replacing “state championship,” “prom” and “graduation,” Katie did the only thing she felt she could: She laughed.
“I am not a Debbie-downer,” Katie says smiling. “You can’t just pout the whole time.”
Within hours of her diagnosis, she was sent to UW Medical Center. With a cloud of uncertainty hovering, Katie and her family sought out the one thing they knew that would ease her pain: basketball.
Doctors told Katie’s family she would be facing an intense upcoming week in the hospital and to let her get away for a few hours. Barely able to walk or stay awake, Katie shuffled her way across the street to her own private sanctuary, the UW gym. There, her friends and family gathered together in the empty arena and let the game she loves so much be their platform to heal.
“It was weird to think about,” Ann said. “Here we don’t know her prognosis and whether she will live or not and we are having fun and laughing.”
Doctors delivered the first “good news” to come the Collier’s way when they returned to the hospital. Katie had been re-diagnosed with a sub-type of AML called acute promyelocytic leukemia (APL). APL has a better survival rate and would be treated with a non-traditional form of chemo therapy that only around 80 people in the United States had experienced before, with all of them seeing their cancer stay in remission.
That small glimpse of hope was all the graceful forward needed to be released from basketball purgatory.
“One of the very first things to pop in my head was basketball,” Katie said.
Basketball has always been at the center of the Collier family. Katie’s ability to bang on the block and play on the wing comes from years of driveway games with her four older siblings. She won a state championship as a freshman, behind her twin sisters who were seniors. Now those sisters were back in a protective role, only this time against a very different opponent.
But Katie wouldn’t be able to make the fight against cancer look as easy as she makes the game look. Her gentle jumper and artful handles would serve her no purpose against an IV drip and a decrepitating body.
“The first month and a half was the hardest time,” she said. “My body was falling apart. My sister had to wheel me into chemo. I was so weak.”
The mental battle was almost as bad as the physical battle at first. She asked herself, “Why me? Why now?”
While those questions echoed down the hallways of Seattle Cancer Alliance, like a falsetto note in an empty church, Katie knew the answers were elusive.
She knew the battle she faced could only be won by one person, and she wanted the world to know she was a fighter.
Tears accompanied the laughter most of the time. Some days, Katie felt degraded as nurses told her she had to muster the strength to walk 20 minutes. Her body betrayed her so many times during her treatment that there were moments when she asked herself, “Can I do this?”
“I can’t count the number of times I cried during this,” Katie said. “And I don’t like to cry in front of people.”
Although her daily routine of chemo, school and practice drained every ounce of energy from her body, Katie didn’t allow it to damage her spirit or her drive to return to the court. She embraced the struggles and the pain, as she watched her fight against cancer inspire others.
“The ‘Why?’ part became so obvious to me so soon,” she said. “I got so many letters and messages from people all over saying that I am helping them. That’s the reason why, because obviously I can handle this.”
A little over two months after her diagnosis, still in and out of chemo, Katie stepped on the court again. For the first time since her life was drastically altered, she felt complete. On the court, she wasn’t a cancer patient. She didn’t have to worry about pills or blood draws. It was just her and her team and the chance to forget.
“I just want to feel normal,” Katie said. “By getting cancer, you feel abnormal. You feel like your daily routine has been taken away from you. By going out and playing with my team and being captain, it was a huge part of the recovery process.”
Katie—who is ranked in the top 25 nationally by ESPN—went onto play in 18 games for Seattle Christian (WA) High, putting up over 16 points and 11 rebounds. She led her team to the state playoffs, and she was named Washington State Player of the Year, all while receiving chemo treatments.
About a week before she was set to play in the McDonald’s All-American Game, Katie left her doctor’s office with the news she was cancer-free. The next week, she walked on to the court in Chicago, as not only one of the best high schoolers in the nation, but a cancer survivor.
“As weird as it sounds, it was a bittersweet moment,” she said of being cancer-free. “I am definitely glad at some points this happened. I learned to go with the flow and expect the unexpected. You just have to be strong.”
In the end, the choice her family questioned whether she would ever be able to make was a somewhat easy one. She decided to stay at home—spurning UCLA, Gonzaga and a long list of others—to try to revitalize a UW’s women’s program that has never landed a recruit of her stature before.
“You build championship teams through character,” UW coach Kevin McGuff said. “I don’t think there is anybody that we have ever recruited with higher character than what she has displayed before she has even stepped on the court.”
As Katie walks into the gym, a certain glow radiates around her. Her long, blonde hair rests past her shoulders, and a bright, white smile reveals the warmth everybody speaks of.
She is more than just an inspiration or a story that will be forgotten. She never stops smiling as she speaks of the love she has for her family and the positives cancer has injected into her life. She even chuckles at the thought of her cancer coming back—the nontraditional treatment has only been around for about five years—and the pain it could bring.
Katie’s father, Mark Collier, rests his hand on his wife’s leg as she becomes emotional speaking of the burden cancer can bring to a family.
“Early on, we looked at each other and said, ‘We might lose Katie. She might die from this,’” Ann said. “How do you deal with that?”
For Katie, the answer was simple.