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NCAA.com | September 10, 2018

Volleyball: Former Western Kentucky All-American ‘overwhelmed’ with support after leukemia diagnosis

Gregg Rich | WKU Athletics western kentucky volleyball

Alyssa Cavanaugh went to a local hospital to be examined for a kidney infection, but ended up staying the night, trying to keep her family calm as she was trying to stay strong herself and not to fear the worst.

The next morning, she found out she had leukemia. What happened after that was something Cavanaugh, the former All-American outside hitter at Western Kentucky, never anticipated.

“I was so overwhelmed with happiness and love,” she told NCAA.com. “I just felt so blessed to be in touch.”

Cavanaugh was diagnosed with the disease on Wednesday morning. The night before, the doctors had done blood tests for her kidney infection and it came back that her white-blood-cell count was 240,000. The normal number is between 8,000 and 10,000.

The doctors called in a doctor who treats cancer patients from another nearby hospital to confirm Cavanaugh, in fact, did have leukemia. She was then transported to that hospital where she had a spinal tap, had bone marrow removed, had blood drawn and began chemotherapy immediately.

"The first 24 to 48 hours were really rough. There was a lot of tears going around,” she said. “You never think it's going to be you, especially I'm a pretty healthy, active 22-year-old and you just never think it's going to be you."

Word started getting out to friends and family, who quickly offered words of encouragement, prayers and support. In case she wasn’t able to respond to each message, Cavanaugh sent out a tweet late Thursday night informing people of her situation and that she appreciated everyone who had reached out.

After that, Cavanaugh received dozens of direct messages and replies on Twitter from the volleyball community and beyond, most from people she had never played against or talked to before.

She has responded to nearly every message to show how much their encouragement means to her and how it’s motivating her to stay positive.

“The volleyball community has uprisen and has shown me so much love,” Cavanaugh said. “Like I can't explain how lucky and happy I feel to be a part of that. I know that with them, they have kept me busy and have kept my mind off the negative.”

Western Kentucky football coach Mike Sanford told her she was going to be in prayers of the entire team and she even received encouraging from strangers who had beaten the disease. Fellow All-American outside hitter Leah Edmond at Kentucky was one of the first to reach out through Twitter, Cavanaugh said.

The most meaningful interaction, perhaps, came from Texas basketball player Andrew Jones, whose story went viral last season after being diagnosed with leukemia.

RELATED: Texas' Andrew Jones, battling leukemia, released from hospital

He reached out personally to Cavanaugh and gave her advice that seems to be sticking with her more than any, given she can fully relate to his situation.

"He said that you need to focus on what you love,” Cavanaugh said. “It helps him to focus on getting back to being with basketball. So I'm taking that and his word and try to focus on getting back on the court.”

Cavanaugh is arguably the best player in history of the Western Kentucky volleyball program. She was the first All-American in program history after being named to AVCA’s third-team All-American list her senior year. She was also named the AVCA South Region player of the year and Conference USA player of the year for a second straight season. Her name decorates the program’s record books, including recording the second-most kills in program history with 1,816.

Cavanaugh has been in the hospital since Tuesday night and will continue to be in the hospital well into next week. She has had at least three people in her room at all times, mostly her mom, dad, brother and her boyfriend.

Her white-blood-cell count was already down from 240,000 to 21,000 as of Sept. 8, which she said is normal during the induction phase of chemotherapy. For the next month, she will be doing plenty of chemotherapy treatment, then have a less intense schedule for four to six months. She said she will be doing chemotherapy for 2 1/2 years.

Her former teammates at Western Kentucky each wrote “#7” on their wrists for matches this weekend to show Cavanaugh that she was in their thoughts as they took the court. The Hilltoppers went 3-0.

Cavanaugh said her coach at Western Kentucky, Travis Hudson, has messaged her constantly and she plans on visiting with him and the team as much as she can once she can spend more time outside of treatment.

Hudson released a statement Saturday with one simple message to Cavanaugh: “I believe in you.”

“This is going to be a part of my life forever and hopefully the main part is only 2 1/2 years and I just want to embrace it and do the best I can with it and spread love and joy,” she said. “Everybody's crying around me and I don't want it to all be sad. It could be way worse. I just want to spread positivity all the way around and show everyone can come together in situations like this."

Cavanaugh is adamant this is only a roadblock for her. She plans on living her life the way she would if she didn’t have cancer.

She plans on inspiring people the way she has been inspired.

“My perspective on life has already changed and this journey has just begun,” Cavanaugh said. “I really think this is going to be a positive outlook at the end of the tunnel for sure. People have inspired me so much already and I hope I can inspire them back."

You can follow updates on her progress at this link on CaringBridge.

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