September is a meaningful time for Katie McCracken, and not just because it’s a month before her 21st birthday.
Since 2012, September has been National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month and a poignant time for McCracken, a junior setter on the Towson volleyball team who battled and overcame a type of leukemia when she was a young girl growing up in Smithsburg in Washington County. McCracken, who has helped raise awareness and money for organizations and hospitals in the fight against pediatric cancer, is open about her history, but refrains from using it as a conversation starter.
“I don’t like to hype myself up,” she said. “I’m pretty humble, and I don’t like to take a lot of credit for that.”
Those who know McCracken are not as shy about praising her determination and impact on others.
“I know internally she’s been an inspiration to our culture and our kids through her perseverance, that no matter what happens, let’s continue forward and not look into the past,” Tigers volleyball head coach Don Metil said. “I think we can even use that mindset throughout our whole athletics department.”
McCracken, who is 20 months older than sister Adaline and almost five years older than brother Clayton, was an energetic child who delighted and exhausted parents Jeffrey and Cristen McCracken. But in the spring of 2007, Cristen McCracken began to notice bruises on Katie’s legs from playing with a hacky sack and another bruise on her arm that McCracken thinks developed after her daughter brushed up against someone in kindergarten. McCracken’s level of concern heightened after Katie informed her one day she sat under a tree during recess because she was fatigued and then needed to sit at the end of the driveway to the family’s home before climbing onto the school bus.
“When she sat down at the end of the driveway because she was so tired from walking up to catch the bus, that’s the day I called the doctor,” recalled Cristen McCracken, a 48-year-old middle school science teacher.
After several tests, the family’s doctor suspected cancer and referred the family to Penn State Health Children’s Hospital in Hershey, Pennsylvania, where Katie was diagnosed with acute lymphocytic leukemia, a form of cancer of the blood and bone marrow that is the most common type of cancer among children, according to The Mayo Clinic.
Katie McCracken said she knew something was wrong based on her parents’ emotions.
“I just thought that I was going to the doctor because I wasn’t feeling well,” she said. “I didn’t think I would get diagnosed with cancer. So I think once I saw how my family was reacting, that’s when I was like, ‘Oh no, this isn’t good.’”
About 90% of children diagnosed with acute lymphocytic cancer are cured, according to St. Jude Hospital. But the cancer diagnosis had Cristen McCracken, usually an optimist, fearing the worst.
“There’s a Little House [on the Prairie] episode and a Waltons episode with a child with leukemia, and they don’t live,” McCracken said. “I remember thinking that Clayton would not remember her, awful things like that until you get your bearings.”
For six months, Katie McCracken underwent heavy rounds of chemotherapy, enduring 18 spinal taps, eight blood transfusions, and four platelet transfusions. She consumed pills every day, overcame a norovirus that at one point reduced her weight to only 30 pounds, and shaved her head after clumps of hair began falling out.
But McCracken was in remission within one month of starting treatment. And after the full 26-month process, she was already back in school.
“I was happy just to resume a normal life,” she said. “I felt like I was missing out on things. My best friend at the time, I could not see her, and I was not able to go a lot of places because my parents were worried about me getting sick. So when I was done, it was a huge weight off my shoulders.”
In the sixth grade, McCracken decided to take up volleyball and developed into a talented setter. “It was a sign that she was returning to a normal childhood,” said Jeffrey McCracken, a 55-year-old retired federal law enforcement officer.
She was a four-year starter at Smithsburg High School, helping the school capture Class 1A state championships in 2015, 2016 and 2017, and showed up on the radar of Towson assistant coach and recruiting coordinator Terry Hutchinson in 2017. After learning about her bout with leukemia from her coach, Hutchinson sought a conversation with McCracken.
“I asked her, ‘Do you mind if I ask you about it?’ and she was like, ‘It’s OK. I like to go back and spend time there and show kids that if I did it, they can do it, too,’” Hutchinson said. “That’s when I was like, ‘Don, we’ve got to grab this kid. This is the kind of kid we want in our locker room.’ That pretty much sealed the deal. She went through all of that and still found time as a high school kid to have the maturity to go back and try to give hope like she had.”
This season, McCracken is backing up graduate student Megan Wilson and senior Kristin Spengler. Metil said McCracken is capable of becoming a starter.
“She’s going to get the reins at some point,” he said. “She’s just got to have that continued confidence because she’s done some special things. She has the ability. It’s just fighting off those nerves and embracing that mindset that she is in charge of our offense and how efficiently it can run.”
Metil said McCracken has earned the faith of her teammates, and Hutchinson pointed out that McCracken has about seven nicknames — the most of any player on the team.
“When you have a lot of nicknames, that usually means you’re pretty well-liked,” Hutchinson quipped.
Cristen McCracken said watching her daughter grow up from a child who was too weakened by chemotherapy to walk and would rarely smile into an athlete playing NCAA Division I volleyball has been overwhelming.
“It means the world to us,” she said. “To see her jump and do everything she can do now is a miracle and a blessing.”
Katie McCracken is still required to undergo echocardiograms every five years, and she admitted that she sometimes worries about a relapse. But she has had no setbacks since being deemed officially cured July 5, 2014, and is considering medical school or a career in medical research after graduating from Towson with a bachelor’s in chemistry.
McCracken said she is proud to be a cancer survivor.
“I think it just means that you’ve been able to tackle something in your life greater than yourself that you were able to push through and come out as a better person,” she said. “It has honestly shaped me to become the person that I am today. It taught me to never give up and that there is always light at the end of the tunnel.”