Giovanna Z. Rinaldo
Editor in Chief
Sophomore psychology major Mireya Rojo was recruited as a Leopard before she had even received her acceptance letter to the University of La Verne.
The volleyball team’s outside hitter followed in the footsteps of her older sister, senior kinesiology major Marisa Rojo, by breaking the family tradition of playing basketball and soccer. She knew volleyball was her element since the age of 13.
What she did not expect was to be diagnosed with Lymphoma at 19, halfway into her second collegiate season.
“I had some lumps on my neck. It started off with just one and it started spreading on both sides,” Mireya Rojo said. “I was going to the doctor, checking it out, I was still playing with it, and they said it was just a swollen lymph node and I had antibiotics, but none of that worked. We finally got an ultrasound on my neck and then a biopsy, and that’s how we found out.”
The news, received Oct. 2, took relatives and teammates by surprise, and Mireya Rojo has had to step away from the court to undergo chemotherapy. Distancing herself from her passion of playing has been the hardest part, she said.
“People take their health for granted,” Mireya Rojo said. “I mean, I did. I’d go to the doctor, then I was like ‘healthy, healthy, healthy.’ And then all of a sudden…”
Although the new reality has been hard to digest and adapt to, Mireya Rojo has taken her athletic resilience off the court and into this new journey, trying to remain optimistic.
“When we first found out everyone was all sad and I was just like… it was weird to hear, but I didn’t really freak out. I just stayed positive, and if I’m positive then everyone else can be,” she said.
In this process, she said her support system has been fundamental.
“We have a lot of the sports teams here supporting us, all of our family, even high school, even different high schools,” her sister Marisa Rojo said. “And it’s a treatable cancer. The doctor told her, ‘if you were to choose any cancer this would be it,’ so that’s the positive side. We’re just trying to stay positive and up-lifting.”
On Oct. 17, the volleyball team dedicated its match against Claremont-Mudd-Scripps to Mireya Rojo, and displayed #Play4Rey t-shirts while the crowd was asked to dress in green in her support.
“I was just happy I was able to be there, because we didn’t even know if I was going to make it,” Mireya Rojo said. “I didn’t expect that much, that many people to go and that’s when I found out at Diamond Ranch they did something for me at their high school too, and it was awesome.”
Junior middle-blocker Kelsie Sievers said she has many good memories with Mireya Rojo on and off the court.
“She’s funny, she can be really quiet if you don’t know her, but once you get to know her she does the funniest things and she’s really sweet, really caring,” Sievers said.
“She’s really fun to be on the court with, she gets really hyped even when she’s on the bench, she’s always really excited. Even when she gets down on herself she bounces back really quickly, she’s not someone who gets down on herself and stays down. If she gets taken out, like we all do, she’s always like ‘put me back in, put me back in’ and she goes back and gets a kill.”
Sievers also said she hopes to be as supportive to Mireya Rojo now as the sophomore was when she was facing challenges of her own.
“She was really there for me when I was going through some stuff, and so with how strong she’s being, I know she’s scared,” Sievers said.
“How can you not be scared? I’m doing my best to be there for her, so if there is a time when she just needs to lose it, needs to be scared for a minute, that she’s not by herself.”
“I want her to know there is someone else she can come to when she needs to have that moment. I never want her to feel alone. It’s really easy for people to feel alone when they’re going through that so I’m trying to make sure she knows she’s loved by everybody around her.”
Another way people have come together to help Mireya Rojo has been through her GoFundMe page, where they have made donations to assist her in paying for the cost of treatment. The financial help she has received so far exceeded her expectations, she said, with donations adding up to $8,700 of her $10,000 goal in less than a month.
Not only those close to her have become mobilized with her challenge, but support has come in a variety of ways, from strangers too.
“Even some refs have donated, it was so cute,” her mother Berenice Rojo said. “A ref said ‘this is what I made today and this is for you’. So they understand the volleyball world and how it is hard for her not to play, and you see the best of people come out from something bad.”
Sievers said she hopes people will be mobilized to donate so Mireya Rojo can live a normal life after beating lymphoma.
“She’s 19, she doesn’t have a job, her parents are paying for two people to go to this school, we all know how expensive it is, and she has so much more to pay for than just her chemo,” Sievers said. “She’s having so many other things done so that when this is gone she can continue to live her life like she was. I try to tell people (to) put yourself or someone you love in those shoes and try to see it from her perspective.”
Although external support has contributed to her positivity, Mireya Rojo’s personality also plays a big part in how she copes with the challenge.
“Because of her attitude, I believe that’s why she’s coping with it so well,” Berenice Rojo said. “She understands she will lose her hair, but she already cut it and she said ‘I could rock it’. So for someone to be strong and to say that… thank God that she’s strong that way and she will be okay.”
Mireya Rojo’s confidence is an asset in the face of Lymphoma, but it has also put things in perspective for her, her family and teammates.
“It just makes you open your eyes and think twice about everything,” Marisa Rojo said. “I think it made everyone grateful for what they have, especially our team. Before every game during our cheers we say ‘Play for Rey’. And, to me at least, it makes me click. ‘Okay, we have to play for Mireya’ because she can’t. She wishes she could play.”
Despite being unable to play volleyball for now, Mireya Rojo channels her drive elsewhere, fighting a personal battle. With a crowd exceeding that of Frantz Athletic Court’s seating capacity cheering for her, she already knows what it is like to be part of a collective sport, and most importantly, what winning tastes like. And although it can be the hardest, this off-the-court victory will taste sweeter than any other.
Giovanna Z. Rinaldo can be reached at email@example.com.