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Two SUNYAC student-athlete cancer survivors share powerful messages of inspiration

Two SUNYAC student-athlete cancer survivors share powerful messages of inspiration

CORTLAND, N.Y. - Earlier this week, people from across the world took action to raise awareness of cancer and to encourage its prevention, detection, and treatment. The efforts, taken on Feb. 4, were part of recognizing World Cancer Day 2019, shedding more light on the disease.  On Twitter alone, the hashtag #worldcancerday2019 was used in thousands of various tweets, demonstrating just how much big of an impact the disease has on people's lives. In some way, all of us are affected by cancer.

Two State University of New York (SUNYAC) student-athletes are all-too familiar with the disease. Geneseo junior women's cross country and track and field runner Baily Gorman (Lockport, N.Y.) and Oswego women's basketball player Rachael Windhausen (Liverpool, N.Y.), a graduate student, both were previously diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma - Gorman in March 2016, Windhausen in August 2015 - but were each able to overcome it. Now, the two athletes carry a new outlook on life; and a message of inspiration for all student-athletes in the conference. 

Gorman said she was pretty active as a senior high school student. "I would probably describe myself as an all-American kid. I really was involved in everything, I volunteered, I had really good grades as a kid," Gorman said.

Gorman, who has been running since middle school, said it was during her senior year when she eventually began noticing her times in the sport she loved were slower than normal. "I started not feeling that great probably in September, when cross country season started, and I just could not hit my times, I wasn't doing as well as I knew I should have been with the training I had been putting in, especially over the summer," she explained.

After a few months of also suffering a nagging cough and feeling exhausted, her mother arranged for a an x-ray, which led doctors to notice something wasn't right with Gorman. After an emergency scan, Gorman and her parents soon went to Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, where more testing revealed a grim discovery - a tumor near Gorman's right lung. "I vividly remember my dad almost passed out, and my mom looked like she was about to throw up," Gorman shared. "And my doctors all just kind of looked at me like how are you handling this? And the only thing I could say was 'So that's why I've been running so bad.'"

Windhausen described herself as your typical college student-athlete prior to her cancer diagnosis. "I had done pretty well basketball-wise, I was starting, I had a great first year college experience, living in the dorms, made a lot of new friends, just the typical college girl," she said. 

The Laker said she eventually began noticing things in her life were becoming out of the ordinary.  "I was sleeping probably 16 hours a day, like a crazy amount. Sleeping a full 12 hours at night and then taking naps during the day, it was crazy," Windhausen explained. "Then I also had some swelling around my collar bone, and I put it off like maybe I hurt it lifting or something. And then my mom was the one that made me go to urgent care."

After a sonogram, urgent care physicians urged Windhausen to see a primary care physician. Her mother made a call to her own physician, since Windhausen could no longer see her pediatrician because of her age, and fit her daughter in for an appointment. After a variety of tests for different ailments, X-rays, CT scans and PET scans were to follow. Those tests showed something more serious; multiple masses that proved to be cancerous - Hodgkin's Lymphoma.

For both Gorman and Windhausen, hearing the news was a tough pill to swallow at first. One of the projects Gorman was most passionate about in high school was "Locked-In to Lock Out Cancer", a fundraiser aimed at raising money in hopes of finding a cure for cancer. The disease she was working to help find a cure for was now the one she had to face herself.  "That's what kind of made it such a hard pill to swallow, was that you were always giving, and then when you actually have to receive something like this, it's a lot harder to take," she explained.

Windhausen said she was in disbelief when she was diagnosed.  "Definitely in denial," she said. "I was young, I was healthy, I was active, not supposed to happen to me."

But it didn't take long before both athletes found determination to get cancer free. Gorman said she had applied early to Geneseo and was seeking a spot on the school's cross country program. A letter from the admissions office revealed just how supportive the school was in her endeavor to beat cancer, informing her that her "Geneseo family" was waiting for her when she was ready. Additionally, Geneseo's cross country head coach Dan Moore, who had been in touch with Gorman previously, was quick to offer his support. Gorman said she informed Moore that she wouldn't be able to submit any more running times during her senior year, but that's not what he was concerned about. "He said, 'That's fine. Get yourself healthy, I want you to be ready. Your team will be here when you're ready,'" Gorman shared.

Meanwhile, Windhausen had to withdraw from her fall semester classes at Oswego, since that was when her treatments of chemotherapy began, but managed to take an online class through the school and two more at Monroe Community College. Additionally, going through treatments meant being away from her team, preventing her from meeting the new incoming freshmen on the basketball squad. "I missed the new freshmen coming in on the team, I missed those friendships I made freshman year and I couldn't nurture them the way that you're supposed to," she said.

Enduring the treatments wasn't easy for Gorman or Windhausen. "Five rounds of chemotherapy, and each round lasted basically a month, and it would be five days of treatment, so it would be four days of chemo, one day off, and then they hit you again," Gorman recalled. "You basically have a week of treatment, and then you have two weeks to get your counts back up and recover, and then they hit you again. After that I went through 21 days of radiation, 6 out of 7 days a week."

Windhausen had to endure 12 treatments of chemotherapy over the coming months, while juggling online course work, trying to attend Oswego's home games when she could, and even taking two fitness classes at Syracuse's North Area YMCA. Despite the difficult circumstances, Windhausen said her initial period of denial quickly turned into an attitude of perseverace. "It was just 'Alright, let's do what we have to do to get through this, I'm definitely coming back next year.' It was never a question of whether I was coming back to basketball or not, that was always the end goal," she said. "It was 'I got to do this, this, and this so I can go back to school and do basketball.'"

Gorman said going through her treatments meant missing some important events, including a senior class trip to Europe, and her last ever sectional championship. Despite some down days, she remained committed to her recovery.  "I think I remained pretty strong throughout the majority of it," Gorman said.  "It was whatever my doctors told me I had to do I would do it without even questioning it, because I put all of my faith in my doctors, and all the medicine."

Both athletes say support from their schools, friends, and family helped them every step of the way in their recoveries - especially their parents. Gorman finished up her final chemo and radiation treatments in July 2016, while Windhausen's final treatment came in late January 2016. Both athletes had managed to overcome one battle, but there were still more battles ahead.

For Gorman, beginning her fall semester at Geneseo was a bit rocky, as she suffered some temporary short-term memory loss, making for a tough time remembering the subject material she learned in her classes. She started jogging in November, while beginning workouts the following March. She says it wasn't until about her sophomore year where she began to feel back to her old self. And though it took some time, Gorman soon found herself running with her Geneseo teammates in their meets. She says there's a special bond she and her teammates share. "I think it's just the feeling of family with the team. It's something different with runners, I think, it's just a different type of pain that everybody just bonds together," Gorman said. "And I found it here especially when I came to Geneseo. This team is the largest family that I've ever had."

Windhausen had the challenge to get re-acquainted with basketball, while also rekindling the team chemistry with her old teammates, and some new ones as well. It took some work, but since then, she's bounced back to becoming a significant presence on the court for her team. "I definitely just appreciate the chance to get out and play. I'm just taking everything in stride and looking forward to every game that keeps coming until it's the end," she explained.

The two student-athletes certainly aren't the only ones who will ever battle Hodgkin's Lymphoma - the American Cancer Society estimates that in 2019, more than 8,000 people will be diagnosed with the disease in 2019. But as both Gorman and Windhausen have proven, though it's not easy, overcoming the disease is certainly possible. The two say it's overcoming the small obstacles during the treatments that can make all the difference. "Just getting yourself out of bed in the morning. And doing one thing that you can do that makes you feel good," Gorman explained. "And some days you can't. Some days you just can't do it. And you stay in bed, and that's fine. But on days that you can, it's important to get yourself up, to do things that keep you happy, and just stay in contact with the people you love."

"You're going to have good days and bad days, days where you just want to lay in bed and cry, but if you have those bad days it's OK," Windhausen added. "It's how you get up the next day that really counts, you have to just keep pushing through, because you're gonna make it to that other side."

And though going through the pains of battling cancer is something neither of these athletes ever desired, there's a silver lining to their experiences, specifically when it comes to how their triumph over the disease has changed them. "I would probably say stronger and more compassionate as a person," Gorman shared. "It just made me think more about the little things in life. Those are a lot more important than everybody thinks."

"You appreciate the smaller things more, the friendships that you make, and everyone that touches your life, you really appreciate that more," Windhausen said. "And I've got to say that I appreciate so many things that I didn't before."

And with new perspectives, both Gorman and Windhausen hope their stories can inspire all conference student-athletes to be the best they can be - both on and off the field. "It's important to just be there for your teammates. Check up on them, make sure that they're doing okay," Gorman said. "Don't ever get complacent, you have to keep doing everything you can. Whether it's school, running, or your friendships. It's just important to give everything you do 100 percent."

"I don't take for granted as much as I did before and I try to make every day count," Windhausen added. "Live it like it's your last. Kind of cliché, but it's true when your normal routine is interrupted, and you realize things that are taken for granted shouldn't be."

With their struggles against cancer in the rearview mirror, it appears both Gorman and Windhausen have bright futures ahead. Gorman majors in psychology with a minor in biology at Geneseo, and after obtaining her bachelor's degree, will look to get into an accelerated program to get a bachelor's degree in science of nursing, as she seeks to become a nurse practitioner. Eventually, she hopes to work as a registered nurse while pursuing a master's degree. Windhausen is looking to wrap up her five year accounting program at Oswego, where she will soon graduate with a bachelor's degree and a master of business administration degree. In June, she'll be ready to start as an associate accountant at Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y.

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