Virginia Tech lacrosse player faces off against cancer
In February, Virginia Tech lacrosse coach John Sung coordinated one of his team’s full-speed, full-contact drills during a preseason practice – a drill that resembled an intrasquad scrimmage.
His players rotated the ball, and it eventually found its way into the webbing at the end of Mary Griffin’s lacrosse stick. She caught it and readied to make a move, but Sung immediately blew his whistle to stop play.
“Wait, who is that?” he said.
“It’s me, Coach,” Griffin said.
“Mary Griffin!” Sung yelled. “Welcome back!”
At that moment, the members of the Virginia Tech lacrosse team started yelling, cheering, and high-fiving their beloved teammate.
Such is the response when one takes on a formidable foe like cancer and comes away victorious.
“I wanted to make sure the kids all knew she was back,” Sung said. “It was fun to watch the kids acknowledged just how far she’s come.”
“It’s a moment that I’ll never forget because there was a point in time before the surgery and even after when we didn’t know what the process was going to look, how my recovery was going to look, and what the steps were going to be,” Griffin said. “So, to be in that position to be back on the field put in perspective how lucky I am and how blessed I am. Things could have been a lot worse, and I’m just really thankful for how things turned out.”
Griffin, a Sykesville, Md., native who just wrapped up her sophomore season and aspires one day to be the next sports broadcaster out of Virginia Tech’s sports media and analytics program, spent most of 2020 taking her lumps off the field — her dog died, a tree in the front yard of her family’s home fell during a thunderstorm and totaled her brother’s car, and both of her parents lost their jobs, becoming tertiary victims of COVID-19 pandemic.
But the lump that terrified her the most sat inside of her pancreas and in a portion of her spleen.
In September, Griffin felt sharp pains in her side while performing conditioning drills during an offseason workout. The pain intensified with each sprint and ultimately resulted in Anne Bryan, the team’s trainer, pulling Griffin out of the drill. Sensing something more serious was taking place, Bryan later consulted with Mark Rogers, the chief medical officer in the athletics department, and they decided to schedule an abdominal scan for Griffin.
The scan revealed the lump – one coincidentally the size of a lacrosse ball. On Sept. 25, Griffin underwent a biopsy to determine if the tumor was cancerous, and a few days later, she received the news that no one wants to get.
Adding to her misery, she received those results without her family nearby. She had tested positive for COVID prior to the biopsy, and while under quarantine, she learned that she had cancer during a Zoom call with her doctor at Johns Hopkins and her mom. Bryan provided the in-person support, while remaining socially distant outside the place where Griffin lives in Blacksburg.
Griffin returned to the practice field in mid-January, starting out slowly with stick drills and ultimately working her way into contact drills. Two days before the Hokies’ season opener against Liberty, her team of doctors cleared her for competition.
Reach for excellence
In mid-April, Virginia Tech announced a $400 million fundraising campaign designed to lift the university’s varsity sports into the upper echelon of the ACC and to help student-athletes like Mary Griffin achieve success in the classroom, in the community, and in their respective sports.
For more on the campaign and how to invest in the future of athletics, please click here.
Sung put Griffin in the game, which served as a salute to her recovery efforts. Three months after surgery to remove the tumor – the minimum recovery needed – she helped her team to a 13-5 victory over the Flames.
“If there is one person on our team that could get through this, it’s Mary Griffin,” Sung said. “Her attitude, her positivity, just the way she is … it’s absolutely amazing.”
Griffin wound up playing just three games this season after playing in seven during the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. Missing most of this past fall put her behind her physically, but she was thankful simply for being back on the field and being with her teammates. She welcomes the additional work needed to get into peak physical condition.
“Am I still the player I was last year? Probably not,” she said. “That just means I need to do extra stuff. I see it every single day that I am getting back to where I was. My feet are getting a little faster, or I’ll have a knockdown. I am getting back to that part.
“I’m almost there. There is more work to be done, but I do see myself getting back to the speed that I was at.”
Her coach sees it, too. The Hokies struggled this pandemic-plagued season, going 5-11 overall, but an upset of Virginia in the regular-season finale and the return of players like Griffin has Sung optimistic.
“Mary Griffin will be a starter at Virginia Tech,” Sung said. “There’s no question about that. She had a couple of seniors in front of her, and we were teaching her a new position, but I think using her the way we want, she’ll definitely be able to be a big contributor for us moving forward.”
Griffin’s next big day comes later this month when she returns to the doctor for a follow-up scan. Provided everything continues to go well with her recovery, she will have a scan performed every six months for the next five years.
There is no reason for her to be worried, yet human nature often takes over. Everyone in her position feels concern of varying degrees when taking on a foe such as cancer.
“I have not really talked about this to a lot of people, but there is always something in the back of your head saying, ‘What if?’” Griffin said. “Hopefully there will be no further treatment, but there is always that thing in the back of your head saying, ‘What if it’s back? What if it’s back?’ I’m trying to have hope, and things look to be on my side, but I’m definitely nervous for sure – but hopeful at the same time.”
The overall experience, while difficult, has given her a better perspective on life. She feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude to all those who have expressed support through phone calls, texts, emails, and through donations to a GoFundMe page that the parent of a Virginia Tech lacrosse player set up to help the family cover medical expenses. Donations to the fund (click here to learn more) currently sit at more than $65,000.
More importantly, though, Griffin tries not to waste a minute of any day. She tells herself never to take a day for granted or the people in her life for granted. Everyone’s cancer experience looks different, and she feels fortunate that hers has been a short and relatively easy road.
“It really could all change in the blink of an eye because it did for me, and you never know when things could take a hard left,” Griffin said. “Just having that perspective, I think it’s just refreshing to know, and I’m trying to get it out there for people, so they don’t have to wait for something like this to happen to them. Hopefully it doesn’t, but this is definitely something that I’ve learned a lot from.
Story by Jimmy Robertson