On Friday, Sept. 23, the Cal Poly volleyball team returned to Mott Athletics Center after 10 straight road games to face Long Beach State.
As the home opener, the game held a special meaning for a number of players on the team; whether it be their first home game in more than 1,079 days or their first official game ever on the Mott hardwood, the game had a special feel.
However, the game also marked Cal Poly’s “Volleyball Versus Cancer” night, which was especially significant for freshman setter Brooklyn Burns.
According to Cal Poly Athletics, on Feb. 3, after experiencing some back pain, Burns thought she may have been sore from a bad night’s sleep. As her symptoms progressed to chest pain the next day, Burns and her mom thought it could be anxiety or something a little more serious.
The day after, Burns knew it was time to head to urgent care. An initial x-ray found a shadow in her chest and a CT scan showed that this was a mass of swollen lymph nodes, a sign of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
After spending the next 11 days in the hospital, Burns was officially diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer that affects the lymphatic system, which is a part of the body’s immune system.
Volleyball was a part of Burns’ life for 10 to 12 years. Having to let go of it for some time was “the hardest thing,” Burns said.
“Being stripped of that was really hard,” Burns said. “Being an athlete, it’s kind of all you know, and you’re so focused on your sport and your athletics, it revolves your whole life.”
Burns, in the middle of her senior high school season of volleyball after already committing to Cal Poly to play at the Division-I level, had to quickly come to terms with the fact that her life was about to dramatically change.
Burns began two rounds of chemotherapy treatment soon after her diagnosis, receiving one round for two weeks before getting two weeks off. While Burns was able to visit her team every so often during treatment, it was still a difficult adjustment from her normal everyday life. But she said it also gave her a new perspective.
“Volleyball is obviously such a big part of my life, but it’s not everything to me anymore,” Burns said. “[I realized] that there is so much more to life than just volleyball.”
Having such a huge part of her life taken away from her was hard for Burns, but that wasn’t enough to break her positive outlook on a difficult situation. She continued her treatment throughout the next couple of months and was even surprised by the Cal Poly program with an Instagram post of the team sporting matching purple shirts in support of her recovery.
On April 26, she rang the bell that signified that she was officially cancer-free.
The Cal Poly volleyball team recruited Burns for her skills as a player and for the impact she could have on the court.
Even though Burns knew she earned her spot with the Mustangs, she was nervous about telling the team about her diagnosis. However, the coaching staff reassured her that her value came from her traits as a person just as much as her ability on the court.
Head Coach Caroline Walters said she expressed to Burns that the team was there to support her.
“If you can play one point ever, if you never get to play a point, if you never get to practice in our gym, you’re going to be a member of Cal Poly volleyball,” Walters said of her message to Burns.
Burns said volleyball may be a priority and being the best is always the goal, but in the end, “you’re a human before you’re an athlete.”
Walters sees the impact Burns has brought to the culture of the volleyball program since her arrival. When asked about what characteristic Burns has shown throughout her time at Cal Poly, Walters pointed to her gratitude.
“I think when you’re faced with these moments when sport is taken away from you and in Burns’ case when life can potentially be taken away from you, there is this element of gratitude not only for sport but for each day that you get to be here,” Walters said.
She added that Burns “has been instrumental in showing us to dig deeper and to have gratitude that we get to do this every day.”
Walters believes that Burns’ mentality is what has had such a profound impact on the program in her short time at Cal Poly.
“I think there’s a ‘never quit’ mentality that is thrown around in sport, and it’s thrown around without the understanding of what that truly means,” Walters said. “She has stayed positive through all this, which I think has been remarkable in and of itself and has definitely had to do with how she’s transformed our culture here.”
Although Burns has helped strengthen the team’s culture through her show of resiliency and positivity, that doesn’t mean she hasn’t been getting it done on the court as well.
“She has a gnarly serve,” Walters said. “She’s left-handed and it’s kind of similar to a left-handed pitcher for baseball batters, it has a different kind of look to it. So, she’s able to get some passers into trouble, which is really good. And then defensively, not only after she serves, she’s in there and has been digging quite a few balls.”
Walters has mainly utilized Burns as a pinch server throughout this season, making an impact in short stints at times when the stakes can be at their highest. Burns has taken these opportunities in stride with a smile of someone who is grateful to go out and do her best on the court every single time.
Whatever role she’s given, Burns has most definitely proved herself to be a fighter that won’t go down under any circumstances.
In her battles both on and off the court, Burns’ positivity, as she puts it, helps bring joy and smiles to a red-hot Cal Poly team who has won nine of its last 10 games.
“I find a lot of joy in coming in and just being with the team and hopefully trying to bring some smiles to the court if it’s really stressful,” Burns said.
Cal Poly Volleyball will play the University of Hawai’i on Saturday in the Mott Athletics Center.