By Walter Villa
Brooke Marcus was trying to help save endangered sea turtles when the fight for her own life began.
It was April of 2010, and Marcus and her Douglas (Wyo.) classmates were halfway through a two-week trip to Costa Rica when the volleyball player started to feel dizzy. Next came the vomiting, then the trouble hearing.
Not to worry, she was told, it was just “altitude sickness.”
On the final day of the trip, Marcus’ feet swelled up. By the time she returned home, she was hot and sweaty.
“My parents were freaked out,” said Marcus, now a 5-foot-10 sophomore. “They gave it a night to see if the swelling subsided, and they took me to the hospital the next day.”
A nurse drew blood and sent her home with a plan to have her return in a couple days. Five minutes after she left, however, a doctor ordered her to come right back -- she was going to be airlifted to Denver.
Once she got to the hospital in Denver, doctors discovered she had acute lymphoblastic leukemia -- cancer of the blood and bone marrow.
“Doctors say that if I had stayed in Costa Rica another week, I might not have made it back,” Marcus said. “My blood was 70 percent leukemia and my bone marrow was 85 percent.”
Marcus spent six weeks in the hospital.
“It was kind of surreal,” said Tammy Ware, Marcus’ mother. “I think I walked around in a daze for a couple of weeks. It was horrifying to see her going through chemotherapy.”
Ware said other parents going through similar circumstances at the hospital offered support. Mostly though, Ware was amazed at her daughter’s courage.
“Brooke never cried about having cancer,” Ware said. “Her goal was to play varsity volleyball as a freshman. Knowing that she had such a positive attitude, I knew I couldn’t afford to fall apart in front of her.”
Marcus didn’t quite reach her goal. Due to the draining chemotherapy treatments, Marcus spent her freshman year taking online classes. She did, however, serve as the volleyball team’s manager, attending the games and helping out where she could.
This past fall, Marcus made the junior varsity and was named her team’s Most Inspirational Player.
“Prior to getting leukemia, she was a dominant middle-school player,” said Angela Rhoades, Douglas’ varsity coach. “She even mastered a jump serve in a few games.
“Now she is focusing on getting her strength back. The chemotherapy just stole so much muscle. However, she has great fundamentals. I have no doubt she will be a contributor for our varsity soon.”
Marcus hopes that happens this fall. Her cancer is in remission, and she will be done with chemotherapy by August. Doctors have told her there is an 80 percent chance her cancer is gone for good.
Marcus said she hasn’t had time to be scared.
“You can either be worried or you can focus on getting better and have faith that you will get better,” she said.
Still, Marcus lost 30 pounds during her ordeal, down to about 105 on her 5-10 frame. She has gained about 15 pounds back and remains active, playing basketball at the moment. She is also considering a track tryout this spring.
Caitlin Marcus, a senior all-state setter at Douglas, said the year her cousin spent as a team manager was important.
“It kept her involved in the sport she loves,” she said. “You could tell she wasn’t the same Brooke -- she was a lot weaker and exhausted. But now I can slowly see her coming back.
“I’m just happy she’s still here with us. I was really scared for her. It made me cry a lot. I was praying she was going to be OK.”
Rhoades said she has been impressed with how Marcus has battled to beat cancer.
“Twice during last year’s volleyball season, she had to have a chemotherapy treatment on a Monday and played in tournaments by Friday,” Rhoades said. “Our coaching staff could tell there were days where she did not feel well, but she never complained.
“Brooke ran every sprint the team ran. She kept going during blocking drills. We told her it was OK for her to miss a day, but she always found a way to get on the bus and compete.
“It was an amazing testament to her determination.”