Ailene Voisin

UC Davis star's back pain was cancer. How she's hitting back after a 'total shock'

'Never really saw this coming': UCD volleyball player has stage 4 cancer

UC Davis volleyball player Mahalia White looks forward to getting back in action as she has finished chemotherapy. White is recovering from stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, which gave her back pain.
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UC Davis volleyball player Mahalia White looks forward to getting back in action as she has finished chemotherapy. White is recovering from stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, which gave her back pain.

Mahalia White eases her thin 6-foot frame into a chair in the UC Davis athletic department, smiles warmly, extends a hand. For the better part of an hour she chats openly about life, classes, music, and a promising volleyball career that already includes the conference Freshman of the Year Award.

She strikes you as someone who never has a bad day, except of course, that she often has bad days.

Cancer. Stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma. Chemotherapy.

“I started getting back pain last September, October,” White recalled, “but I just assumed it was from playing. When the pain was still bothering me after the season, we went and got an MRI. I thought it would be a fractured vertebrae or something like that. When the doctor told me what it was, that I had cancer in my spine, I lost it. I was in total shock.”

White, who was diagnosed in December, two weeks after the season ended and one day after her 19th birthday, is attacking the disease with the ferocity of an outside hitter – which she is – even when that means taking baby steps. She rides her bike again and is taking a full load of classes. On Fridays, she joins her teammates for yoga sessions. And now that she has finished her five courses of chemotherapy and received an encouraging prognosis, the next phase of her recovery consists of reclaiming life’s simplest pleasures.

She can’t wait for her taste buds to return, for instance, to sleep more than two hours at a time, to wake up without feeling nauseous, to become strong enough for daily exercise. For someone who has been active throughout her life, participating in basketball, track and field, even her brother’s youth football games, the lack of energy has been a brutal companion.

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“We had Mahalia in every sport that was offered in the after-school programs,” her mother, Patsy, said from the family’s home in Canoga Park. “But once she took up volleyball, that was it.”

White discovered the game almost by accident. During freshman orientation at Chatsworth High, the coach noticed her long arms and legs, the way she moves with the easy grace of a natural athlete, and urged her to try out for the team. She went to one practice, was shown how to strike the ball, took a few practice swings, and was immediately handed a jersey.

Though most of her peers began playing well before their teens and attended volleyball camps during the summer, White emerged quickly on both her high school and club teams, becoming known for her leaping ability and powerful right arm. Several California universities and a few schools back east recruited her, but she chose UC Davis because of the academics, the campus and her connection with the coaches.

Her freshman season was deceiving – and nothing short of remarkable. Despite the constant back pain, she led the Aggies in kills, was a five-time Big West Freshman Player of the Week, and because of her unique abilities, left coach Dan Conners tinkering with his playbook, mulling the possibilities.

“Mahalia’s still raw,” said Conners. “There are things she can improve on. Blocking, for one thing. Serving can be a struggle. But she’s able to hit out of the back row because her arm is so strong, and that’s rare in women’s volleyball. If she continues to progress, she has a chance to be the Player of the Year in our conference.”

Her coach neglects to mention the obvious, that none of this is possible unless the cancer remains in remission. According to the National Cancer Institute, the survival rate for someone with stage 4 Hodgkin – which is less serious than non-Hodgkin – is an estimated 65 percent. The stats improve in White’s situation because of her youth and gender, and she is encouraged both by results of recent CT scans and the opinions of her doctors at UC Davis Medical Center. Her body has responded extremely well to the chemotherapy, she has been told, enabling her to finish the five-course treatment earlier than anticipated.

The three-day hospital stays were the worst, though her mother left her side only to shower and change clothes. The two are exceptionally close, and Patsy’s presence was even more comforting because she herself is a breast cancer survivor. She underwent a double mastectomy and completed her own chemotherapy only five months before Mahalia received her diagnosis.

“We approach this just like we did with me,” said Patsy, whose two sisters also are breast cancer survivors. “We take it one day at a time and keep a positive attitude. I tell Mahalia, ‘If I can get through it, so can you.’ But you just hate to hear this about your child. I would rather get my cancer back than learn that my daughter has the disease.”

Mahalia continues to receive strong emotional support from her father and two brothers, one of whom is her twin. Members of the Davis athletics community keep close tabs. Teammates and coaches spent hours at the hospital during her chemo sessions. Conners and 40 male athletes from other sports shaved their heads and raised money for children’s cancer research during a March 9 St. Baldrick’s Foundation fundraiser (“MaHellYeah”) at de Vere’s Irish Pub in downtown Davis.

Naturally upbeat, with an irreverent, self-deprecating sense of humor, Mahalia helps lighten the mood as well. She jokes about losing 15 pounds “on a body that didn’t have 15 pounds to lose,” and thrusts out her hands, revealing long fingernails in need of a touch up. They are painted deep purple, she says, matter-of-factly, because the chemo turned her nails black.

When her hair fell out from the chemotherapy, wig shopping with some of her teammates proved to be an interesting expedition. Should she go with braids? Loose curls? A tight look? Ultimately, she chose a long, straight hairpiece she can flip over either shoulder. “The left side is the real me,” she said, grinning.

On her worst days – and she experiences these occasionally – she retreats to her bedroom, often in tears. March 17 was one of those days. Weak and unsteady since she woke up, Mahalia fainted in the shower, badly chipping her left front tooth. She was taken to the emergency room and examined for a concussion.

“The tooth was the worst part,” she said, fingering the uneven gap at the bottom. “They can’t cap it off because it’s cracked all the way down. I’ll need a root canal, but they can’t do that until the chemo is out of my system.”

With a wry smile, she adds: “And it was St. Patrick’s Day, of all days. I get a call from my mom. She is telling me to have a bright day. I’m like, ‘Are you serious?’ But what are you going to do?”

She has ideas; she has plans. She is getting stronger and fully intends to return to the volleyball court. Soon enough, she will rise up, extend that powerful right arm, take aim at that disease, and swing through for the biggest kill of her young life.

“Mahalia is going to beat this,” said her mother, "like we all did.”

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