Katherine Frega defeats blood cancer

Katherine Frega: Through lacrosse, freshman defeats cancer, inspired to find cure to disease

Published April 22, 2013 at 2:00 am
CORRECTION: In a previous version of this article, the fraternity in which Katherine Frega is involved was misstated. Frega is In Phi Delta Epsilon. The Daily Orange regrets this error.

For Native Americans, lacrosse is more than a sport. The game served as a spiritual guide for tribes. It was a healing game for sick tribe members. It prepared warriors to attack their enemies.

And it was lacrosse that prepared Katherine Frega for battle.

At the age of 17, Frega was diagnosed with Hodgkin lymphoma, forcing her to postpone her freshman year at Syracuse University. During treatment, Frega used the guidance of lacrosse to fight the disease that plagued her for almost three years.

As she finishes her freshman year free of cancer, Frega, now 20, is back on the field and playing the sport she loves for SU women’s club lacrosse.

Now, Frega is on the offensive.


Since she was a little girl, Frega had one goal: play lacrosse at SU as a Division-I athlete.

She wore No. 22, a number traditionally given to the best lacrosse player at SU. She bought a wooden lacrosse stick to improve her skills, and practiced every day in her backyard with her dad.

Everything changed during a summer day in July 2009.

“I was just practicing with my dad, running typical drills,” she said. “But I was so out of breath. I felt like I was running through sand. I knew something was wrong.”

By May 2010, she was getting worse. Her doctor scheduled a chest X-ray and CT scan. The tests showed Frega had a tumor the size of a football on her lymph nodes.

To get through the difficult chemotherapy sessions, Frega would bring her wooden lacrosse stick to the hospital. With it, she visualized a lacrosse game in which the toxic chemicals flowed into her body and invaded the tumor.

She entered the first half strong, attacking the cancer from the beginning. But the opponent wasn’t going away.

At halftime, her team needed to re-evaluate.

Since the numerous treatments and clinical trials weren’t as effective as doctors had hoped, Frega said receiving a bone marrow transplant was one of the last lines of treatment.
Her sister tested as a match. On Jan. 17, 2012, Frega received her sister’s bone marrow.

Sixteen days later, Frega was discharged, setting a hospital record. Because of the success of the transplant, she planned to attend SU in the fall.

But in May 2012, Frega was back in the hospital. She developed graft-versus-host-disease. The new transplant cells weren’t received well by her body, and instead of healing, the cells attacked her body.

Frega left the hospital two days before starting her freshman year. Doctors and social workers tried to convince her to take another semester off, but Frega refused, said her father, Mark Frega.

“She just had it in her mind. She was going to get up there,” he said. “It was Syracuse or bust.”

“You have cancer.”

Frega never wants anyone to hear those words.

For her, attending SU is the first step in accomplishing this.

Frega is a biochemistry major on the pre-med track. She is on a Relay for Life committee, joined the club sailing and club lacrosse teams, is a brother of the medical fraternity Phi Delta Epsilon and is in the Renee Crown University Honors Program – all with a nearly perfect GPA.

She is welcoming and accepting of all people, said Mark Frega, also an SU alumnus. His daughter was destined to attend SU, he added, due to the intense spirit of both Frega and those who attend the university.

People don’t forget her name, said Heather Buchan, one of Frega’s closest friends and fellow cancer survivor.

“She’s a fighter. Katherine was able to turn a bad situation into a positive experience,” said Buchan, a sophomore advertising major.

Frega said she hopes to become an oncologist who specifically works with children.

Since her diagnosis, Frega has been involved in the HEADstrong Foundation, an organization that provides resources and counseling to blood cancer patients. The foundation was created by Nicholas Colleluori, a Hofstra University lacrosse player who later died from Hodgkin lymphoma in 2006.

The foundation’s president, Cheryl Colleluori, Nicholas’ mother, said Frega was one of the most relentless young adults she’s ever met.

“There wasn’t a pity party,” Colleluori said. “She had a relentless attitude that never wavered, similar to my Nick.”

She reminded Colleluori of her son so much that Frega was given an award in honor of Nicholas’ memory last year.

This summer, Frega will be interning with the State University of New York Upstate Medical University. She will assist researchers studying cancer.

Said Frega: “Right now, there’s a war on cancer. I won my battle. But now, I want to help win the war.”