MARTINSVILLE, Ind. — How bad did Bridget Balcerak want to be with her teammates? She snuck into the gym. Wasn’t supposed to be there. Shouldn’t have been there. Not after the cancer.
Not after the chemo, the radiation, the transplant, the isolation. Not after her strength had been zapped, leaving her so weak she couldn’t walk up the stairs. The 17-year-old didn’t even want to leave the couch most days.
That’s what was on the outside, anyway. On the inside, there was never a doubt in Balcerak’s mind that she’d be playing volleyball again. Of course she would be. The first step to playing? Getting into the gym.
This was during the spring. The team was practicing. Balcerak walked in, even though it was dangerous. Her immune system was depleted. She hadn’t been cleared by her doctors.
“I had to send her away,” Martinsville coach Kayla Back said.
But before Balcerak left, something happened.
“The minute she stepped into the gym, everyone was going nuts,” Back said.
This was about more than volleyball. This was about one of their own being back and coming back. Back from places she never wanted to be. Places she knew she wouldn’t stay.
“She’s the heart and soul of this team,” her coach said.
She’s playing again.
She beat it once. Then it came back.
This journey began when Balcerak was a freshman. She noticed a bump on her neck in May 2017. In June, she was diagnosed with Stage IIA Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer considered highly treatable. She went through four rounds of chemotherapy, playing volleyball throughout. After she finished her fourth round, she was declared cancer-free.
That, though, was just the beginning.
While doing scans last summer, doctors noticed something peculiar. There was a mass on top of her heart and near her trachea. They couldn’t surgically remove it because it was too dangerous.
“They said it was a ‘high-rent’ area,” her mom Nancy said. “It was too dangerous. The heart is right there, there’s a pulmonary nerve.”
Two biopsies came back negative, but the mass continued to grow. It was closing off her trachea.
“Her trachea was like a little slit,” her mom, Nancy Balcerak, said. “She was playing volleyball through that, but they made her stop. If she started breathing too hard, it could close up completely.”
Not long after, a spot on her collarbone appeared in the same spot the original mass was found two years prior. The cancer had returned.
“I wasn’t worried about Bridget’s attitude,” her dad, Butch Balcerak, said. “I was trying to stay positive in front of her because I know when it comes back more aggressively, things don’t always turn out real good.
“It was devastating for us, obviously.”
Balcerak underwent six rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. Radiation and steroids got the mass down to a safe level before they began chemotherapy.
Even then she yearned to be with her teammates.
“She would text me, ‘I have treatment today; I don’t know if I’ll make it,’” Back said. “She’d make it to the game, and you could tell she was tired. She would sit on the bench and cheer.”