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The Rocky Mountain Collegian

The Student News Site of Colorado State University

The Rocky Mountain Collegian

The Student News Site of Colorado State University

The Rocky Mountain Collegian

Fight Like a Ram: Extending courage, community beyond the court

The+Colorado+State+University+womens+basketball+team+lines+up+for+the+National+Anthem+at+Moby+Arena+Jan.+21.+Each+player+wore+the+name+of+a+cancer+patient+on+their+jersey+for+the+fourth+annual+Fight+Like+a+Ram+game.

Collegian | Serena Bettis

The Colorado State University women’s basketball team lines up for the National Anthem at Moby Arena Jan. 21. Each player wore the name of a cancer patient on their jersey for the fourth annual Fight Like a Ram game.

Kaden Porter, Staff Reporter

After spending half of 2022 fighting cancer, the Kappa Kappa Gamma house director was able to celebrate finishing treatment in front of her sorority during the Jan. 21 Colorado State University women’s basketball game.

For the fourth consecutive year, CSU partnered with UCHealth to put on a “Fight Like a Ram” game in both men’s and women’s basketball to honor cancer patients. During the women’s game Jan. 21 against the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Marilyn Votaw was honored as one of this year’s cancer warriors.

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“We see so much at the cancer center. … There are really hard times,” said Kathleen Michie, UCHealth’s oncology services program manager. “So to see our patients in a different light, in an experience that they can enjoy with their loved ones and create memories, it’s huge.”

At the game, Kappa Kappa Gamma showed up in force, making their numbers known with cheers whenever Votaw was mentioned. 

“She’s been through so much, and this is just a small thing that we could do for her,” said Anna Griffin, a member of the sorority. “We just wanted to support her and show her that she’s loved and that Kappa loves her.”

Votaw, who intentionally described her cancer diagnosis as a “season” due to its time-bound connotation, first became concerned with swelling in her lymph nodes in June 2022. She went to UCHealth the following month after noticing it had grown larger and was promptly referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist to do further tests.

Despite her concern, Votaw was surprised when the specialist informed her of his worry that she could possibly have HPV cancer.

“I walked out back to my car and cried,” Votaw said. “I did not think we were going to land in cancerland this quickly. It was shocking.”

After waiting nearly a month for an appointment, Votaw had a biopsy that confirmed the doctor’s suspicion: She had a form of HPV cancer known as stage 1 p16-positive carcinoma. 

“My initial reaction to the diagnosis (was that) I am in control of my body,” Votaw said. “(Cancer) is not welcome here, get out. Every fiber of my being was like, ‘Nope.’”

At first, Votaw, a self-described highly independent and competent person, was hesitant to ask for help. Never married and without children, Votaw found others close to her who showed her how important it was for her to have support and not have to take on that battle alone.

“The people part of it — that’s where I think I may have learned the most,” Votaw said. “Making yourself vulnerable that way is really hard, especially for someone like me. I’ve been shocked by how everyone has just kind of stepped up, and they’re all working together.”

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Votaw received love and support from her friends and family across the country and world while her local “tribe” — made up of a variety of people, including her church, her friends and the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority — helped her take on some of her daily tasks.

“My cancer season has been hard. … But I don’t feel devastated by it, and that’s really been from all of the support, care and love from people stepping up that’s made that possible.” –Marilyn Votaw, Kappa Kappa Gamma house director and cancer warrior

On Oct. 21, 2022, Votaw had surgery to remove her right tonsil and all of the lymph nodes on her right side. She then underwent radiation treatment at UCHealth in Fort Collins until she completed treatment Jan. 10.

“I think one of the harder emotional pieces is that I don’t know what my new normal is going to be,” Votaw said. “I have this massive scar; I don’t have lymph nodes; I don’t know how many of my taste buds will come back. I’ve been changed, and I don’t really know where that’s going to land.”

Despite having to adjust to her new normal, she’s also somewhat grateful.

“I’m fortunate that I don’t have one of those cancers that is really tough to deal with,” Votaw said. “That doesn’t mean that it won’t come back or I won’t get cancer from the treatment that I’ve had, but I sort of went into this with a pretty hopeful scenario.”

“At stage one, head and neck HPV cancer is pretty curable,” she added. “At two years, if there’s not a recurrence, I have a low, single-digit chance of recurrence, and at five years, I’m cured.”

Now entering the recovery season of her cancer diagnosis, Votaw hopes her case can help bring awareness to HPV cancers and the importance of HPV vaccines and self-screening, and she is grateful for the student-athletes who take the time to make these sorts of partnerships possible.

“That (the team is) willing to do it — student-athletes, my gosh, they’re busy,” Votaw said. “This is a tough game, and here they are doing this on top of everything else. It just kind of blows my mind.”

The game and interactions with the group were immensely meaningful to the athletes as well. Each athlete wore a cancer warrior’s name on their jersey instead of their own for the game; Votaw’s name was worn by senior guard Meghan Boyd.

“The game of basketball means so much more just to see a smile on her face, just because I was able to wear her jersey; it means a lot,” junior guard Cailyn Crocker said during the postgame press conference, referring to her cancer warrior, Anita Miller. “We came up short today, but we definitely gained a lot in just meeting our cancer warriors.”

Ultimately, Votaw credits her support system with aiding her through her season and changing her perspective on life.

“My cancer season has been hard,” Votaw said. “But I don’t feel devastated by it, and that’s really been from all of the support, care and love from people stepping up that’s made that possible.”

Reach Kaden Porter at sports@collegian.com or on Twitter @kqporter5.

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