Volleyball star, facing adversity, staying and playing strong
Jennica McPherson of Kennedy Catholic will play her final volleyball match of the season Tuesday before having surgery next week to remove a cancerous tumor.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Scores & stats
BURIEN — Once in a while, Jennica McPherson lets her fears show.
Once in a while, she lets her tears flow.
"I have my moments," McPherson admits.
Moments when she wonders why she has to be the one with a cancerous tumor the size of a golf ball in her lung.
Moments when she's as scared as any 16-year-old would be facing surgery next week.
Moments when she's sad about missing the rest of the volleyball season with her Kennedy Catholic High School teammates.
"I've broken down a few times," she said.
But most of the time, McPherson maintains the same unwavering attitude she shows on the volleyball court for the fifth-ranked Lancers.
"She never complains," her mother, Jennifer McPherson, said. "She's just got the perfect attitude. I'm so proud of her. She's making it easier for our family because of her attitude."
Jennica, a 6-foot junior who has developed into one of the top players in the area, admits she tries to be strong for her parents and younger sister, 11-year-old Shayne, who considers Jennica her hero. But it's also just part of her calm-cool-and-collected demeanor.
"I try to be positive because it's the only way you can get through things," she said. "I was [scared] and I still am, but I try not to think about it. It's in God's hands."
What upsets Jennica and her mother most is that the tumor wasn't discovered three years ago, when she had her first serious bout with pneumonia. Instead, she was diagnosed with asthma and prescribed inhalers, which never really helped improve her breathing.
Once a high-level soccer player who could run all day, Jennica got to the point last winter where she had to ask to come out of basketball games to catch her breath and played sparingly on Kennedy's state championship team.
Then last July, while playing with an all-star volleyball team in Florida, she came down with pneumonia again. After she recovered, her pulmonologist recommended a CT scan, which she had in mid-September. It showed the three-centimeter tumor on her lower right lung and a biopsy revealed it is a malignant carcinoid tumor, which is slow-growing and can generally be removed without requiring additional treatment like radiation or chemotherapy.
While Jennica seemed to take the news in stride, Jennifer reacted like a typical mother.
"I'm terrified," she said.
Luckily, Jennica is a prime candidate for a minimally invasive technique called video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS), where the surgeon uses a scope equipped with a miniature video camera to view inside the lung. Dr. Brian Louie will perform the surgery next Monday at Swedish Hospital, where senior partner Ralph Aye was the first physician in the Northwest to perform the VATS in 1997.
If Dr. Louie determines during the procedure that he cannot completely remove the tumor using VATS, he will revert to the traditional method, which requires a six-inch incision. But he hopes that won't be necessary as the complete recovery time is much longer — three to four months instead of six to 12 weeks.
"Because she's such a high-level athlete, we want to get her back to playing as soon as we can," Dr. Louie said. "Getting her to perform at the level she does is key, but the primary importance is her health and getting the tumor out."
With the VATS, Jennica has been told she could be back to full strength by January, when the club season picks up and she is expected to draw a lot of college interest.
The surgery was originally set for last Friday, but when Jennica sent to her pre-op appointment last Thursday with a lingering cold, it was postponed, much to her disappointment.
"I just want to get it over so I can start rehab," said Jennica, a right-side hitter who is a candidate for Seamount League MVP with 257 kills for the 23-0 Lancers.
When she thought she was playing her last match of the season for Kennedy last Tuesday, she admitted to tearing up while taking a break on the bench.
"I was a little emotional because it was my last game," she said.
But she filled in at setter on Thursday (dishing out 18 assists) and will be part of the final Seamount League match against Mount Rainier on Tuesday, which is senior night for Kennedy.
"I guess that's an upside to it," Jennica said.
Dr. Louie is impressed with how she has handled the situation.
"I think she's going in with the right attitude," he said. "I just want to get through this and make sure we do a good job of treating the tumor properly and let her recover and get on with her life."
That's the moment Jennica McPherson can't wait for.
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