Katie Day fighting cancer with Gonzaga community at her side

Gonzaga women's tennis senior Katie Day juggles tennis balls in a photoshoot during her freshman year.

For Katie Day, anything but positivity is simply not an option.

It’s been the way she’s always seen things, on the tennis court and in life — a perspective those close with her attest to and a state of mind where a smile comes as natural as breathing, regardless of what lies ahead.

“She’s a fighter, man,” said DJ Gurule, Gonzaga's women's tennis head coach. “She’s overcome a lot. She’s done a lot in her time here at Gonzaga that doesn’t necessarily show up on the record books or in anything else, but it’s definitely felt."

That fighter’s attitude suddenly became even more essential on Jan. 10, a few days before she was supposed to begin her spring semester at GU.

Day was diagnosed with Primary Mediastinal B-Cell Lymphoma, a form of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that  requires her to undergo chemotherapy and, ultimately, precludes returning to campus and playing her final tennis season. She's beginning a lengthy battle and journey, something unlike any other challenge she’s previously undergone.

The same day of her diagnosis, Day decided to make the news public through a post on her Instagram account. She also changed her profile setting from private to public, so anyone can follow her story if they wish to do so. 

“Yes, I am scared,” Day said in the caption on the post. “But I am a freaking D-I athlete and if I can wake up at 6 a.m. every day and swim in a pool once a week feeling like I’m about to drown, I think I can handle a little bit of cancer in my body!”

Day said she never considered going about her illness any other way. For her, it just didn't make sense to do so.

“The main reason I went public was just that I needed support,” she said. “It’s hard to go through something like this alone, especially when all of your friends are in Spokane. 

“I also wanted to tell my story, so people don’t have to be telling their version of it. ... I wanted it to be strictly from me.”

Since her first round of treatment began, Day has largely remained at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for treatment. With a suppressed immune system from chemotherapy, traveling far or even going outside for too long is too dangerous most of the time. 

“It’s just really annoying,” she said. “I just want to be at school. That’s, like, my big thing. I just don’t want to be trapped in my house all day watching TV.”

Regardless, Day remains hopeful that she will walk with her classmates at graduation on May 10, which takes place a week after her final scheduled round of treatment at the beginning of week. Being there for her teammates on her team’s senior day is also an experience she doesn’t want to relinquish.

“Even though she’s in Portland, she’s still a part of the family we have going on here and the community,” said senior Simon Homedes Dualde, GU’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) president and a childhood friend of Day’s. “It’d be great if she can come back and be a part of that senior night, because she deserves to be able to graduate with all the people she’s shared so many memories and experiences with these last four years."

Day feels just as strongly.

“I’m hoping that I feel OK to go up [to Spokane] because I really want to so bad,” Day said. “I will do anything to graduate with my friends.”

During these weeks in Oregon, Day has leaned on her family to weather the beginnings of a difficult process. Her parents live in Lake Oswego — a suburb of Portland — with her sister, who is in high school. Her brother attends  University of Oregon in Eugene.

But any geographical distance is not enough to break the bonds she’s formed with her team in Spokane. Day said she texts with teammates and coaches every day, and her team has been collaborating to write weekly private blog posts detailing all that happens up north, so Day won’t miss a beat, even from hundreds of miles away.

“It’s just important that everyone feels like this is like their home and we just want her to feel like she’s still a part of it,” said senior Kate Ketels, one of Day’s teammates. “Even when she’s not here, this is still her senior year too.”

Day’s teammates also began wearing lime green ribbons — a symbol meant to promote awareness of Lymphoma — to honor Day and her fight. 

“With the ribbons in our hair, on our shoes … I think that she’s always with me,” Ketels said. “It’s something little, but I think that it can make a difference.”

The ribbons quickly caught on, too, as SAAC board members, junior Matthew Perkins of men’s tennis and junior Jordan Thompson  of women’s soccer, helped create a booth in the athlete lab allowing student-athletes to customize their own ribbons for Day. The practice has become commonplace for all of GU’s athletic programs, wearing the ribbons and posting supportive messages on social media with the hashtag #KDStrong. 

The bright ribbons are hard to miss, and with every passing day, it seems they become even more common on campus. Day’s fight, it appears, is rapidly becoming more than just her own.

“Just being able to be there for people has always been in my values,” Day said. “But now, I guess, it’s my turn for people to help me out, which I’m not used to. It’s definitely something different, but it’s a good thing.”

That’s hardly the only revelation for Day since this process began. 

“My perspective on everything has changed,” she said. “I used to live my life, like, planned out. I just wanted to go to school, play tennis and, then, I’d graduate. Then, I’d get a job and all this stuff. But in reality, there’s no real plan that you can really have in life. 

“My cancer, it’s kind of the luck of the draw. It’s not a genetic cancer. It just kind of happens to people. And I’m trying to tell myself I’m going to take it as a compliment, in a way.

“Because, it’s like, God thinks I’m that strong to be able to do something like this, because it’s a very treatable cancer. I just have to go through all the crap, basically, to do it. I’m just like, 'OK, they think I can do this.'”

Before beginning her second round of chemotherapy this week, Day decided to shave off the rest of her hair, smiling ear to ear in a selfie she shared on Instagram.

“I was sick and tired of all the hair falling out in clumps that I started to pull it out and begged my dad shave it off,” she said in the caption. “And I have never felt more alive!”

“I never would have thought getting cancer would be such a positive thing to happen to me at such a young age,” she continued. “But I have already learned and grown so much from this experience already and I’m just getting started!”

As always, that mindset is anything but surprising to those who know her well.

“She has her priorities right, I mean, that’s for sure,” Gurule said. “Her faith is strong and she has faith in the right things. 

"And one of the main ones is herself.”

Connor Gilbert is a sports editor. Follow him on Twitter: @ConnorJGilbert.

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