Kaila Gavel

Chemotherapy cures cancer, but for Kaila Gavel, volleyball also has the power to heal.

In November 2015, the Rattlers volleyball player was standing in the Snake Pit at Medicine Hat College, surrounded by teammates, family, friends, and fans for a special tribute to her courageous battle with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

One year later, Gavel is back on the court playing the game she loves in the community she now calls home.

The 18-year-old setter was recruited from Prince Albert, Saskatchewan to play volleyball for the Rattlers in 2014. She enrolled in kinesiology and studied hard. She played volleyball even harder and was named Rookie of the Year.

“My first year of college was awesome. I met new friends, experienced new things, and celebrated so hard on the court. It was the best year of my life,” says Gavel.

Then, a week before she was to move home for the summer, she woke up to find a lump in her neck. Back in Prince Albert, her doctor - thinking it was only a thyroid issue - eventually booked her for an ultrasound.

“It was the first time I had ever heard of lymphoma,” recalls Gavel of hearing the test results.

She was officially diagnosed on July 28, 2015 and learned soon after that it was Stage 4 cancer.

“I got the call at work and just knew. As the doctors explained about chemo, I just sat there. When I clicked back in, I asked the doctor if there was cancer treatment in Medicine Hat. I had to play volleyball.”

Despite her determination that this disease wasn’t going to interfere with her court time, she faced some tough opposition. Her dad. After some serious negotiating, Gavel was allowed to return to Medicine Hat for treatment and school. She argued that the friends she had made at MHC were her family too, and she needed them to get her through the battle ahead.

“I was in my dad’s face about it, but he really understood how much I love it here,” says Gavel, adding with a laugh that there is no way she would ever let her own child do what she did.

Once in chemo, Gavel handled the treatments well physically. She prepared and waited for side effects that never came. She kept telling herself she felt fine until she was convinced she was fine.

Mentally it was tougher. Watching her team from the sidelines was difficult, but it also gave her the will to fight the cancer and reclaim her spot in the line-up.

“I was cheering but in tears. It was hard to watch,” says Gavel. “I didn’t even care that I was going through this. I was just mad I couldn’t play volleyball.”

Gavel still attended practices to support her teammates but often butted heads with her coach, Kim Stonehouse, who wouldn’t allow her to participate in drills or go on road trips with the team.

“We laugh about it now. Kim would tell me how it was, and I would tell her back how it was going to be. She wouldn’t let me on the bus for road trips so I would follow in my car. Once I finished treatment I wanted to jump right back in but she told me I wasn’t ready. Now I respect what she did but at the time I was angry.”

After months of chemo and recuperation, Gavel was given the green light. She trained with Stonehouse over the summer months to get back up to the level she was at prior to her diagnosis. Volleyball practices resumed, her hair started growing back, and she was finally feeling like her old self again.

But as she prepared for her return to the line-up this fall, she made a terrifying discovery – another lump.

“I freaked out. My reaction was worse than the first time because I started thinking back. I remembered the experience differently now that it was over. I was so scared. I didn’t want to go through it again.”

A panicked trip to her doctor’s office and a round of antibiotics confirmed good news for Gavel - a bad cold and nothing more.

Rattlers volleyball team
Above: Gavel celebrates with her team at the 2016 home opener.

With the volleyball season officially underway, Gavel has discovered an even greater love for the sport.

“Being back is unreal. I loved the game before but I didn’t appreciate it. It’s so hard to appreciate something until it’s gone.”

After being on the sidelines, Gavel says she has learned a lot more about the game, and about herself. As much as she doesn’t like to be called an inspiration or defined by a disease, she admits the experience has shaped who she has become.

“I found out what type of person I am. I learned how straight forward and persistent I can be,” says Gavel, who now plans to pursue a nursing degree and work in children’s oncology.

Working hard both on and off the court, Gavel is determined not to blame cancer.

“Never once - even if I’m struggling – do I blame cancer. It’s never an excuse. I have to work just as hard as everyone else. It feels so good to be back.”