BY DENNIS SILVA II | DENSILVA2@GMAIL.COM
At barely 20 years old, Katie Becker is no stranger to life-altering adversity.
During her freshman season at the University of Texas-San Antonio in 2018, Becker was forced to medically retire from playing soccer seven games into her collegiate career. After having four concussions as a first-team all-district standout at Cinco Ranch High, she had another during a match against Rice in Houston on Sept. 23, 2018. Doctors and coaches determined that another concussion could lead to brain damage.
And while it was difficult to give up her first true love—Becker began playing soccer when she was five years old, helped Cinco Ranch to two state tournament appearances in high school and earned a scholarship to compete at the NCAA Division I level —it was nothing compared to what she faced a little more than two years later.
On March 22 of this year, Becker was diagnosed with stage 3 B-Cell Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma.
“I was in shock when they told me at first,” Becker said. “I had always heard of cancer being in people a lot older than me and I didn’t think it was real. When it processed, I started crying.”
The next four months were mentally demanding, and emotionally and physically taxing for Becker, but she was declared cancer-free on July 26 and is in complete remission following a PET scan on Aug. 25.
Still, how she got there was a testament to who Katie Becker is—resilient, competitive, fierce, unyielding. She was supposed to find out her results from chemotherapy treatment in October. She found out two months early.
“She’s incredibly strong and amazes me,” said Ali Russell, Becker’s best friend since their freshman years of high school. “The way she was able to have strength physically and mentally and go from we’ll know something in October to where she’s already cancer-free … it blows my mind.”
Becker, who is still a part of the UTSA women’s soccer program as a team manager, started noticing symptoms in February. Her face was swelling when she woke up for morning practices. Doctors initially thought it was allergies. But when she worked out, she got light-headed easily. Two veins on the side of her neck would pop out.
“It got worse and I started to have a cough and was congested,” Becker said.
While on spring break in Florida in March, Becker again saw doctors, who again attributed it to allergies. But when she returned home from spring break, she did another small workout and her neck and shoulders swelled.
“Imagine a linebacker’s neck,” she said.
Her neck was so swollen, she had to turn her entire body to look to her side.
“Once the swelling never went down, I had three migraines in three days. I wasn’t sleeping,” Becker said. “A doctor told me to get blood work and an MRI on my neck. The next day, he called saying I had blood clots in my neck and needed to go to the ER right away.”
At Memorial Hermann Hospital in Katy, a growth in Becker’s chest cavity was discovered. She transferred to the Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center Oncology Unit downtown and had multiple biopsies.
Doctors concluded that the swelling occurred because the tumor was located in a place that caused superior vena cava syndrome, which happens when the tumor presses on the vein that transports blood from one’s head to the heart.
“Of course, we were shocked. Never expected it,” said Katie’s mother, Margaret. “We were, though, thankful to finally get a diagnosis that, as the doctors said, solves the mystery, determines treatment, and shines a light on the path forward.”
Becker’s chemotherapy was a five-day process each week. The first round of chemo was the worst.
Becker said she didn’t touch her phone for a week and a half. She slept all day and stared at walls.
“My mom tried to make it fun for me, but I simply didn’t have the wanting or energy to do anything,” she said. “I remember my mom and I would call it a win if I even ate a cracker that day. It was brutal. Every time I would stand up to go to the bathroom, I would throw up. I tried drinking water and I would throw up.”
In three weeks, Becker lost 25 pounds. Even when she was discharged to go home after the first round of treatment, she couldn’t keep food down and passed out twice from a lack of strength.
She could not make the 10-foot walk from her bedroom to the bathroom because of severe fatigue. She suffered dry eyes, headaches, dry skin, restlessness and “seeing stars.”
“The hardest part was when I would go in for my treatments, I couldn’t have any visitors because of the coronavirus,” she said.
Indeed, as if the situation itself wasn’t dire enough, Becker was not allowed visitors except for Margaret. Even then, that was only permitted after persistent input from Becker.
“She was only 19 at the time,” Margaret said. “She and I could not conceive her being all alone during what she was going through. She presented her case and thoughts to the unit/floor manager with incredible and enviable maturity, reason, and smarts. He agreed with her and spoke to higher-ups, who also agreed I could stay with her but with conditions.”
Margaret was required to stay in her daughter’s room “24-7,” and only for the first round of chemo. But it was worth it.
“We were together like that for 10 days,” Margaret said. “Thank God, reason, compassion, and empathy prevailed. It was difficult to leave her in the hospital for the next rounds, especially as each successive round required a six-day stay, but she became familiar with the routine and the staff and was so brave and tough as nails through all of it.”
After that first round of chemo, with Margaret no longer present, Becker became well-acquainted with Netflix, taking in her favorite movie “The Old Guard” when she wasn’t binging “New Girl.” She also became best friends with her phone, dependent upon text messages and calls from family, teammates and Russell.
THE DYNAMIC DUO
In high school, Becker and Russell were dominant players for Cinco Ranch, the best players for a program that was a regional powerhouse year in and year out. Russell was the star striker, Becker the versatile midfielder.
Coach Fredy Sanguinetti called the pair his “dynamic duo.”
Off the field, Becker and Russell are very close. Their families hang out together often. And though each eventually went their own ways to continue their athletic careers, Becker to San Antonio and Russell to College Station at Texas A&M, they never left each other’s thoughts.
So when Becker was in need, Russell was front and center.
“It was definitely a shock. Pure shock,” Russell said of finding out Becker had cancer. “Probably one of the most surreal moments of my life.”
Russell’s mother is a breast cancer survivor going on almost four years. As the only daughter at home at the time, Russell took care of her mother along with her dad, picking up on how to treat and care for someone.
“With Becker, something that was so important that I learned from dealing with my mom … she didn’t want to be treated differently,” Russell said. “It’s a sense of security for them to know it’s OK and they’ll make it through this, because they have a support team treating them like they’ve always had.”
Russell constantly texted Becker. Whenever Becker was permitted to go home, they got together at each other’s houses, keeping their distance because of the coronavirus but still talking, being together and having fun.
They made TikTok videos while standing six feet apart, a recommended rule of social distancing when it comes to the coronavirus.
“We tried to make it as normal as possible, being goofy, doing stupid dances, sing-along stuff,” Russell said. “So fun and so nice to be able to share.”
But it wasn’t easy.
“It was a challenge,” Russell said. “You want to make sure you’re saying the right things, but you also know that you being the friend you are is the right way. I struggled with knowing how to respond. ‘What’s the right way for me to respond?’ And my mom would ask Mrs. Becker, and Mrs. Becker would say that me being me is the right way. Being as normal as I can, while difficult … I think it did make a big difference for her.”
Along with Russell, UTSA teammate and roommate Lexi Bolton was also a big help for Becker. Bolton, like Russell, had a brother who had cancer when he was younger, so she too knew the right approach for Becker.
Teammate Tara Giesen made a compilation of videos of people praising how strong Becker was and how much they loved her.
UTSA team trainer Shelby Dale called constantly to check in. UTSA head women’s soccer coach Derek Pittman did as well.
“It may not seem like much, but it meant a lot to me to know that people cared how I was doing,” Becker said. “The best part was they didn’t treat me any differently, and I think in a place where I didn’t feel like myself that was really important.”
Though Becker was relatively upbeat and positive, and as strong mentally as she could possibly be, there were dark moments.
“I think the aspect that scared me the most was knowing that my tumor took only three months to progress and how suddenly it came. It scared me to know that could easily happen again and no one can prevent that,” Becker said. “I feel like a ticking time bomb every PET scan that I have, just being a nervous wreck about if something will show up on the scan.”
Becker said the cancer turned her into someone she didn’t recognize. Aside from significant weight loss, she did not have eyebrows or hair. It was shocking.
Once a premier athlete used to excelling and being the best during intense workouts and high-stakes games, she could not even walk up stairs without getting tired.
“It was hard to look in the mirror sometimes,” she said.
Perhaps worse, despite their best efforts and smiling faces, she also could tell it was affecting her loved ones.
“I remember one night I was in the hospital and my mom thought I was sleeping. She was on the phone and I heard her start to lose it and start crying,” Becker said. “It was hard for me.”
Margaret leaned on her husband Mark and oldest daughter Leigh for their guidance, love and support.
“It was very difficult, but I just tried to focus on Katie and her care and advocated for her,” Margaret said. “My guiding force? Just the very simple fact that she’s my child. That’s all anyone needs.”
Russell tried her best to “read the environment and respond.” Sometimes, she knew she needed to just let Becker talk and express her feelings. Other times, she knew she had to say something to lift her up.
“I remember the first time she told me she was scared,” Russell said. “The first few days, she was OK. And then the cancer news hit. We were texting and talking, and she told me, ‘I’m scared.’ What’s special about our friendship is we are positive with one another, but we’re also real. Our friendship was able to grow in that sense, with her being able to come to me and be so vulnerable with her situation. I’m grateful she allowed me to be so positive and a supporter of hers and to be updated and aware of things that were going on.”
Becker also relied on her nurses.
“I didn’t see the doctors often, because they have a lot of patients, but I connected with a lot of the nurses on a more personal level and they made the lonely stay there more bearable,” she said. “I was the youngest patient in the chemo unit by far, so the nurses would always tell me how I was always an easy patient. Overall, what helped me overcome cancer was my age and the fact that I lived a healthy lifestyle. Before cancer, I was extremely active and ate healthy, so the odds were in my favor.
“I’ve had things that have challenged me happen before,” Becker said. “Playing soccer had been my main identity my whole life. I was always working towards the goal of playing in college, and once that dream had finally come true, it was stripped away in a matter of months. So I think it was crucial that I didn’t dwell on the present and what I was going through.”
Becker started to see progress when the swelling in her neck and face began to subside. About halfway through her chemo treatment, she got a PET scan. It showed her tumor had shrunk to more than half of its initial size.
“It was easier to go into the hospital for chemo, because each time I would come out I was that much closer to being done,” Becker said. “But as I came closer to the end, my mental state struggled because, for five months, my life had been hospital, doctors and doctor appointments, so being done with treatment meant trying to find a way to get back to normal, even though my life has definitely changed from getting cancer.”
Becker said cancer opened her eyes. Anything bad can happen at any moment.
“It’s taught me to not be scared of anything and to go after what I want to do in life,” she said. “All it takes is a snap of your fingers and your life can change.”
On July 26, Becker rang the bell to declare herself cancer-free.
“I was overwhelmed with emotions,” she said. “Although I couldn’t have anyone with me while I rang the bell, the nurses cheered me on and clapped. I remember leaving the hospital and having a few happy tears come out of my eyes because I was leaving and looking back on the place that I would come in feeling great before treatments and leave feeling drained.
“I don’t think it has really hit me until I was walking out that I didn’t have to go back. That day made me appreciate how lucky I was to have beaten cancer. Not everyone does.”
Becker had a follow-up PET scan on Aug. 25. Three days later, the results showed she was in complete remission. Her next scan will be in three months.
“The most important aspect right now is hoping that the cancer doesn’t reoccur,” Becker said. “The longer amount of time that the cancer isn’t on the PET scan, the less chance I have of reoccurrence.”
Margaret said she is proud of her “warrior survivor.” She credits Dr. Adan Rios, his team and his clinic, and said Becker’s circumstance created a “strong trusting and loving bond” within the family of four.
“I think having a positive attitude and having a good mental state helped me immensely in overcoming cancer,” Becker said. “This process demanded grit and perseverance as I was going through some of the toughest parts of treatment. But throughout this process, I learned that you are only handed the battles that you can take.”