Katherine Frega says she has a true purpose in life as a blood cancer survivor – to become a doctor and to keep fighting the disease that she battled so hard to defeat as a patient.
Katherine Frega, 20, was honored Friday night as the winner of the Nicholas E. Colleluori Award, given each year to an individual that has beaten blood cancer and become a role model to others in the name of the former Hofstra University student-athlete who succumbed to Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Clearly, Frega’s determination, spirit and progress since learning she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma three and a half years ago would make Nick Colleluori proud.
Frega, a Westfield High (N.J.) graduate and Syracuse freshman majoring in Biochemistry, accepted her award during the Third Annual HEADstrong Foundation Limelight Gala at the Hyatt Regency.
Frega knew something was wrong physically when during her junior year on the Westfield field hockey team she had trouble doing sprints. Doctors thought she has rheumatoid arthritis and finally after five months a tumor was found in her chest.
Frega immediately began undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. She was a young and strong athlete – one who had dreams of playing Division I lacrosse – and she was not going to let a small matter of blood cancer deter her.
“I was lucky I was an athlete and that I was young so the treatments didn’t affect me so much at first,” she said. “It took a couple months to really understand the seriousness of my illness and to really know what I was up against.
“I fought it like I was fighting any opponent – I always worked my hardest on the lacrosse field and I was a fighter. I knew I wouldn’t let it win; I wanted my life because I knew I had so much ahead of me.”
But after almost two years of treatments, doctors had found no success in shrinking the tumor and informed her that a stem cell transplant was her only hope. Frega’s sister served as her donor and the operation went well, but her progress was slowed terrible by graft vs. host disease (GVHD), which occurs when the host body struggles to accept the donor’s cells.
“My cancer was unresponsive to treatment, so, yes, the stem cell transplant was pretty much the last straw,” said Frega. “I was still in good spirits during chemo; it was pretty easy compared to the stem cell transplant.
“I was really upset that it got down to that. I had been fighting all this time and it was so hard to stay positive but I knew that you had to stay positive. It keeps your family going and keeps the support system there.
Frega said it was hope that helped cure her.
“It took six months for the stem cell to cure the cancer,” she said. “It was very frustrating that my system was resisting her stem cell. I remember that it was two days before I went to Syracuse that they let me out of the hospital – I had been at my lowest point. I was so weak. It required me to be in the hospital all summer (2012).
“But I think it was going to Syracuse (for a visit) that got me better.”
Today, Frega has stabilized her life, as well as her blood count. Shje had to take off a year from school to recover, but she had a 4.0 GPA in her first semester on a pre-med track, and she is playing lacrosse for the Syracuse club team.
“It’s a lot different now to be able to go out to the lacrosse field,” she said. “I have a much greater appreciation for it. I play every game like it’s my last. I wear Nick Colleluori’s number 27.”
Frega immediately sought the HEADstrong Foundation’s support when she learned she had blood cancer. She began writing “Stories of Hope” on the website and found Nick’s resolve in the support his family gave her.
Frega was named an honorary captain at the Nick Colleluori Classic in 2011 and last year attended the Gala.
“I had known about the HEADstrong Foundation because our boys’ team was involved,” she said. “So it worked out well that there was a lacrosse foundation. My field hockey team bought the (lime green) laces and last year I attended the Gala after my transplant.”
It was an easy choice for Frega to decide to pursue medicine.
“Going through my experience with cancer, I learned about the medical profession and I realized I wanted to be a doctor,” she said. “I am back thriving academically and thriving athletically.
“I appreciate every day.”
Now that she has been thrust into the spotlight as a cancer survivor, Frega says she intends to help others who are diagnosed in their fight.
“I am humbled by being honored by Nick Colleluori; he was such an incredible human being,” she said. “His whole life – not just how he handled cancer – is inspiring to me. The way he played … I never had the chance to meet him in person, but what his parents and family have done in his memory indicates what an incredible person he is.
“I am so honored to have this award in his name.”