From chemo back to the diamond: Michigan softball's Kaylee Rodriguez survived cancer and is now fighting to play again

From chemo back to the diamond: Michigan softball’s Kaylee Rodriguez survived cancer and is now fighting to play again

طوبیٰ Tooba 4 months ago 0 3

Michigan softball player Kaylee America Rodriguez was about a month removed from her cancer diagnosis in fall 2022 when she thought about what she now calls “the last leg” of her recovery.

Rodriguez faced two stretches of grueling chemotherapy on either side of a partial hip replacement surgery in January 2023. A large tumor in her left hip, the result of Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer, had forced her to withdraw from Michigan for the 2022-23 academic year. She had returned home to Miami for treatment and would miss the ensuing softball season. Rodriguez would eventually lose her hair, her appetite and the ability to walk without assistance.

But even in those early days, Rodriguez, who had several specialty roles on Michigan’s Big Ten championship team in 2021, never let softball drift away.

“That was the entire goal,” she said. “Very early on, I was like, ‘There’s no way I’m not playing again. There’s no way I’m going to be on a softball field and not playing.’ It was my motivation, my inspiration.”

Rodriguez’s quest to return carries distinct circumstances.

She sat in the same hospital where her brother Keanu had just a year earlier and consulted with the same oncologist on how to fight her own cancer. Keanu had a different type, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, in the summer and fall of 2021. He never had to fully step away from baseball, finished high school and earned a spot as an outfielder and pitcher at Miami Dade College.

“He’s living his dream,” Kaylee said.

Her cancer experience would be longer and more damaging, removing her completely from softball and putting her return in doubt. The Wolverines have started their second season without “K Rod,” as Rodriguez is known to her teammates and coaches. Her progress is undeniable but, like many going through cancer recoveries, not linear.

Will Rodriguez ever complete her last leg?

“I’m not taking myself out of the race.”

UNTIL EARLY 2022, Rodriguez had a fairly charmed path in softball. She had no history of major injuries. She’d never missed more than a day or two in a season. Rodriguez became a star athlete in high school, helping her teams to multiple district titles in both softball and soccer, while also competing in track, before pivoting midway through to focus on softball. She signed with Michigan in April 2020.

Rodriguez spent her first two seasons with the Wolverines primarily as a pinch runner, scoring 11 runs as a freshman and then recording nine runs and four stolen bases as a sophomore. She immediately hit it off with her teammates.

“She was my best friend, just a bright light,” catcher Keke Tholl said. “She is fun, energetic, always positive. She’s like a yes woman, very reliable, will always be there for you when you need her.”

Tholl, who lived with Rodriguez and other team members during the 2021-22 school year, remembered Rodriguez complaining of pain in her hip. Rodriguez initially thought it was a flexor strain, which she had in the same hip while playing soccer at age 12 or 13. But the pain worsened, worse than she had ever experienced. She struggled to sleep through the night.

Still, she completed the 2022 season.

“She started to become limited at the beginning of May,” said Michigan coach Bonnie Tholl, then an assistant for longtime coach Carol Hutchins, and the aunt of Keke. “We recognized she wasn’t available in the pinch-running role or the defensive role or even in the pinch-hit role for us. Our season was coming to a close, so with any student-athlete, they go through a series of rehab or treatment.

“Cancer is not the first thing that comes to mind for a very healthy 20-year-old.”

For months, those around Rodriguez suspected a sports-related injury, tendonitis perhaps. There were no scans or X-rays ordered.

“We never thought cancer. What are the odds?” said Rodriguez’s mother, Ketty Gonzalez Evora. “Even when you start Googling all the symptoms, the last one that you think is cancer. The fact that it was, I was completely dumbfounded.”

When infielder Maddie Erickson arrived for her freshman year in fall 2022, she immediately clicked with Rodriguez. On a sweltering September day, they attended Michigan’s season-opening football game but left at halftime because of the heat.

As they walked back from the stadium, Rodriguez was in tremendous pain. Erickson even offered to carry her.

“She was walking on her tumor, her femur was about to break because it was so big,” Erickson said. “Knowing now how much pain she was in on that mile and whatever walk back, that was really insane. But we had a great talk and I just knew that we were going to be friends. This girl was fiery, she was driven — someone I wanted to put myself around.”

Days later, Rodriguez had testing that revealed the tumor. While her teammates were practicing, she texted them to gather at her apartment, where she broke the news. She didn’t yet know if the tumor was cancerous.

“Everybody in the room was crying,” Keke Tholl said. “Just to see her down and upset kills me, but then also, everything that she’s gone through and what had just happened to her brother and the great recovery that he had. He had just beat cancer and they were on such a high. To be knocked right back down again was so heartbreaking.”

Gonzalez Evora rushed to Ann Arbor to be with her daughter. Rodriguez could have had further testing and treatments in Michigan, but she elected to return home.

Along with her mother, Rodriguez met again with her team in the dugout along the first-base line at Alumni Field. She told the team she would be leaving to receive treatment and was unsure of when she would return.

“I was in tears, just looking at my daughter, so strong, keeping her chin up for everybody else crying around her,” Gonzalez Evora said. “She was being strong for them.”

WHEN RODRIGUEZ FIRST learned of the tumor in her leg, she said two words: “not again.”

The doctor in Michigan who delivered the news looked at her, confused. Rodriguez had never dealt with cancer or any other serious health problems or injuries. What the doctor didn’t know is Rodriguez’s brother had received a cancer diagnosis in July 2021. A third Rodriguez sibling, Kassem, had a spitzoid lesion on his skin removed in the spring of 2022. If Kassem’s lesion had not been caught and had spread into his lymphatic system, he could have died.

Gonzalez Evora had just gone through the trauma of Keanu’s cancer and Kassem’s scare when Kaylee called her at work.

“She says that it’s a bone tumor, and I just burst into tears,” Gonzalez Evora said. “I’m usually trying to be the rock for them. I just couldn’t believe it. She was taking all this news by herself. I felt just powerless.”

Gonzalez Evora texted Dr. Guillermo De Angulo, the oncologist at Miami’s Nicklaus Children’s Hospital, who had treated Keanu. At first, De Angulo assured her that Kaylee would need surgery and be fine in the long run. Then, he received the full MRI report from Michigan.

“The hairs on my neck stood up,” De Angulo said. “I looked at this and said, ‘This isn’t good. This is malignant.'”

De Angulo knew of cases in which siblings had contracted cancer as children or young adults, but often they were multiples diagnosed with the same type of cancer, like leukemia. After Kaylee’s diagnosis, she was tested for cancer predisposition syndrome, which contains genetic defects that put people at increased risk for malignant tumors.

To De Angulo’s surprise, she tested negative.

“They’re all rare, they’re not linked, and there’s no family history,” Kaylee said. “[De Angulo] basically said, ‘You guys won the lotto, just not the lotto anyone wants to win.”

Keanu’s reaction was much like his sister’s.

“It’s like, ‘Wow, man. We don’t get it once, we get it twice,'” he said.

Keanu had come to De Angulo with a large mass in his neck in summer 2021, between his sophomore and junior years of high school. According to his family, he had given a verbal commitment to play for the University of Miami. At first, the mass was believed to be caused by mono, but after it didn’t go away, De Angulo called for a biopsy that showed Burkitt lymphoma.

The treatment was straightforward but intense. Keanu lost his hair and couldn’t eat the hospital food, resorting to protein shakes. But he continued playing baseball, participating in every practice and game that he could, and sitting on the bench when he couldn’t. He had his final treatment in late September and rang the bell, signifying he was cancer free, in November.

Kaylee attended some of Keanu’s treatments before heading back to Michigan and got to know De Angulo and her brother’s medical team.

“She was very supportive,” Keanu said.

Although Keanu’s health improved, the ordeal had consequences. Keanu said he was a “completely different player,” pivoting to contact hitting because he lacked his standard power.

In late September 2022, just weeks after Kaylee’s cancer diagnosis, Keanu was informed he no longer had a spot at Miami, his mother recalled. He would end up with Miami Dade, where he has appeared in 25 games this season.

“Thankfully, very fortunately, praise God, he’s still an athlete to this day,” Kaylee said. “I love to see him do it. We talk all the time that he very much would have wished I could have been playing as well, but regardless, I’m just so happy to see him doing what he loves, and that the cancer didn’t take away his love and passion for the game.”

KAYLEE’S TREATMENT PLAN spanned about 50 weeks.

“When we got to the hospital, she had never had an IV put in,” Gonzalez Evora said. “Everything was a new experience.”

Kaylee separated her treatment into three parts. First came months of chemotherapy, both inpatient and outpatient, which brought side effects like losing her blond hair and even her eyebrows. She lost weight and, like Keanu, struggled to eat the hospital food, turning mostly to soup and items without strong tastes.

Then came surgery on Jan. 10, 2023, which she called “Everest.”

“It was my first-ever surgery, other than getting the [chemotherapy] port in, on top of the fact that it was one of the biggest surgeries that anyone that I knew had ever gone through,” she said. “It was definitely something I couldn’t really relate to anybody, something I really didn’t know how to prepare for. I just prayed daily, just kept my spirits high and leaned on my family for everything and just knew that at the end of the day, I’m loved.”

Keanu wanted to be there for his sister, but at first, he struggled to set foot in the same hospital where he had received treatment. He had splitting headaches and nausea — post-traumatic stress, De Angulo said.

Toward the end of Kaylee’s treatment, Keanu found a way to “show face” whenever he could. He was encouraged by what he saw from Kaylee.

“She was very relentless, nothing was bringing her down,” Keanu said. “But of course, when you’re by yourself in a room, that’s when you really express the negative sides. Everyone saw she was a very happy and prosperous person. She did say once: ‘It’s easier to go through this since I saw my brother go through this,’ which hit me, and I was like, ‘You got this.’

Kaylee kept in touch with her teammates over FaceTime and text message during her absence, but she had not seen them since leaving campus. About a month after the surgery, she felt strong enough to travel to Clearwater, Florida, where the Wolverines played in the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational.

She told Bonnie Tholl and the coaches of her plan but surprised her teammates at their hotel before a game. Keke Tholl thought something was up when Michigan’s video staff started recording a team meeting.

“It was a great surprise and it was just so therapeutic for all of us to see K Rod in person,” Bonnie Tholl recalled.

Added Keke Tholl: “I got up immediately and I started crying. Just seeing that smile and how much charisma she brought into the room and how much love she brings is just amazing.”

As Rodriguez’s teammates continued with the season, they remained connected to her, wearing “Kaylee Strong” T-shirts and ribbon decals on their batting helmets. She would track their scores and stats, but watching the games “hurt a bit.”

Rodriguez focused on getting through the 22 weeks of treatment after her surgery. Whenever De Angulo came to her hospital room, she greeted him with, “Hey, hey, hey,” from the 1970s sitcom “What’s Happening!!”

“The nurse many times would say, ‘She had a rough night,’ and I’d walk in and there would be a smile, a thumb’s up,” De Angulo said. “That really helped her, actually, that positive attitude. Whenever I have a patient that’s around her age or is going through something difficult, like what she went through, she’d be the person I’d call for them to talk to, because she can really shepherd them through.”

On Aug. 16, she rang the bell to signify being cancer-free.

“It was a party, everyone was smiling, they were having the time of their lives,” Keanu said. “Kaylee was like the ‘it’ girl on the floor, the nurses loved her. She had an amazing goodbye.”

Days later, she said hello again to Michigan.

RODRIGUEZ’S RETURN TO campus in late August was a reset. She enrolled in the classes she had withdrawn from a year earlier and reintroduced herself to her professors. Although Michigan never removed her from the roster, some of her close friends on the team had graduated, and new faces had arrived.

“At first, we talked about pressing play again, but she almost took it in a way that, ‘I’m creating a new thing,'” Erickson said. “She’s a new K Rod. She’s letting that year be a year in her life. It’s 2024 now. She’s not going to relive 2023.”

Rodriguez and Erickson share a second-floor apartment near campus. At first, the stairs were an obstacle. Rodriguez went from using a cane to climbing the stairs one by one to reaching her apartment without assistance. The colder months also brought challenges, and Rodriguez was walking way more than she did during her year of treatment.

She does physical therapy with Michigan’s athletic training staff and spends as much time around the team as she can. Rodriguez is at almost every Michigan practice and home game, and she started consistently traveling with the team for road contests in mid-March. She tells people who don’t know her story that she’s simply on injured reserve.

“When you go through chemotherapy, your muscles don’t recover as quickly as if you pull a muscle,” Bonnie Tholl said. “She’s in that phase of trying to get all of that strength back, and really walking without any limp or hitch.”

Rodriguez plays catch and takes grounders from Erickson. She recently has started taking swings off a batting tee. Rodriguez had been a switch-hitter before cancer but has since worked mostly from the left side (her preference). She swings at about 50% out of a new, more open stance, where she moves back her right foot and steps into the swing to avoid rotating her hips too much.

“I am not at all dismissing her goal of getting back on the ballfield,” Bonnie Tholl said. “It’s way too early to reevaluate whether that’s going to occur. You see signs of her gaining strength.”

Tholl plans to talk with Rodriguez late this spring about comeback goals and realities, stressing that the decisions ultimately rest with the player.

“Especially after seeing what my family’s gone through, I don’t think I could ever rule out anything,” Rodriguez said. “I can never rule out just completely taking myself out of the race when I even think that there’s a slight chance that I could make a full recovery, or just even a recovery to the point that would get me back on the field again. This is just going to take a route of its own.”

Rodriguez’s overall health is on a good trajectory. She had her chemo port removed March 7. Patients with Ewing sarcoma have a 65% to 70% chance of survival, according to De Angulo, and while there’s a risk of recurrence, Rodriguez’s scans have remained clear so far. Her softball outlook, though, is murkier.

Although De Angulo would clear Rodriguez to play again, he doesn’t know if an orthopedic oncologist would, given the extent of her surgery and the risk of fracturing the bone that was replaced.

She might never complete the last leg, but after the past 18 months, she’s ready for whatever comes her way.

“I just have such a different appreciation for it all now,” Rodriguez said. “It means so much more just to be a student at the University of Michigan, to be a player on the Michigan softball team. I’m just so fortunate for the life that I have.”

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