Mahalia White, photographed with her mom, Patsy White, on the volleyball court at the UC Davis Pavilion.

Photo: Karin Higgins/UC Davis

The Comeback

by | Jan 7, 2019 | Aggie Families, Fall/Winter 2018-19, Health

Mahalia White is accustomed to strenuous workouts, but one of the most exhausting in recent memory was a 10-minute ride on a stationary bicycle while her UC Davis volleyball teammates practiced on the court.

It was her first workout after her cancer went into remission.

“I was so tired, but I was so happy,” she said. “I was, like, ‘Yes I can do it! I’m not sick and I’m feeling good,’ even though I was out of breath.”

White is training for a return to the court after her bout with cancer. The experience has altered her views on what constitutes a difficult day, left her determined to not let it define her and pushed her to consider a career helping people in similar situations.

White was a standout on the volleyball team her freshman year, playing through persistent back pain to earn Big West Conference Freshman of the Year. The day after her 19th birthday, she found out that pain was caused by stage 4 Hodgkin lymphoma, which her doctors at the UC Davis Medical Center treated with a five-month chemotherapy regimen that left her sick, tired and bald.

Her friends rallied around her, replacing nights out with time in her Regan Residence Hall room and encouraging her to show off her hairless look, which she was reluctant to do.

“For people who meet me, I didn’t want to be the girl who has cancer,” she said. “I still wanted to be Mahalia, the volleyball player.”

A group of 40 athletes, students and community members joined her in March, shaving their heads at de Vere’s Irish Pub in Davis to show support for her and raise money for cancer research.

But one of White’s strongest supporters during the entire process was her mother, Patsy White. Patsy White and both of her sisters survived breast cancer — and Patsy White finished treatment just five months before her daughter’s diagnosis.

She spent numerous nights in the hospital by White’s side, encouraging her to keep fighting.

“There were days she didn’t want to get out of bed,” Patsy White said. “You have those days and then the next day you have to get up.”

She said the experience has made her daughter — who grew up challenging older boys on the basketball court — even stronger.

“I think this is the hardest challenge she’s had to deal with in her life,” Patsy White said. “The rest should be a piece of cake.”

Dan Conners, director of volleyball at UC Davis and White’s coach, said he admires her positive outlook, adding that she has always been that way.

“She’s not taking any days for granted,” Conners said. “She was that way before she learned [about her diagnosis] — it’s not like this was a new trait.”

White, who is sitting out this season while she continues to heal, said this is the longest she has ever gone without playing a sport. She said she can’t wait to play again and hopes to return even stronger.

“I was playing a little tentatively because I was afraid if I moved the wrong way my back would hurt,” she said. “I’m excited to go back and play now when there’s nothing really holding me back.”

White continued her studies at UC Davis during her treatment, but took fewer courses. This fall she got back to her planned schedule off the court, too.

“This is a moment in my life, but it’s not my life,” she said. “It’s not me — it’s what I’m going through right now.”

The rest of White’s family — her father, twin brother and older brother — are just as excited to see her return to the court, her mother said.

“The first game she plays we will be there in full force,” Patsy White said.

Her ordeal also gave White a new outlook not just on the strength her mother showed during her breast cancer treatment, but her own path after graduation.

White said her mother would not have been able to fly from her home in Canoga Park to UC Davis Medical Center multiple times without the help of nonprofits like Keaton’s Child Cancer Alliance. An organizational studies major, White had been planning a career in business marketing, but is now leaning toward a position with a similar organization and has already been named a childhood cancer awareness ambassador with Keaton’s Child Cancer Alliance.