My story, my words: Emily Grund
Three words that will forever change my life. “You have cancer.”
In less than 24 hours, I went from a strong, healthy student-athlete on the UNC swim and dive team to a cancer patient.
First, a bit of history on how I ended up at UNC. I have been diving since I was five years old. Sport was an important part of my life growing up. Years of practice and commitment to excellence took me all over the world to represent the United States in international competitions, and diving is what ultimately brought me to UNC. I visited the campus before making my official visit and knew right away that this was the school for me. It wasn’t just the university’s academic prowess or where I wanted to pursue my education. I fell in love with it all – the team, the campus and just recognizing the way people treated others.
On Wednesday September 8, 2021 I was looking forward to attending the class and then heading to Greensboro to train on the rig. It was in the locker room that a teammate noticed a rather large and unusual bruise on my right hip. I couldn’t remember what I could have done to end up with a bruise that size. I called our trainer who told me if it was getting worse, getting darker or starting to swell.
Thursday I woke up for morning training and saw that the bruise had tripled in size. And stranger still, I noticed that new bruises had appeared from ordinary activities the day before – carrying my backpack and sitting in a chair. When I was brushing my teeth, I felt dizzy and saw that my gums were bleeding. Instead of training, I went straight to the coach who immediately set up an appointment with the team doctor, Dr. [Josh] Berkowitz. He took some blood and rushed it to the lab. I had just returned from his office when he called to say “pack a bag and have a friend drive you to the emergency department”.
My teammate drove me to UNC Health and the diagnosis came back quickly. I knew the diagnosis was going to be something serious when the ER doctor told me to call my emergency contacts. Less than 24 hours after an unusual bruise appeared, I was told I had acute promyelocytic leukemia, a rare form of cancer.
I asked my doctors how long I had it and was told it was probably a month. Symptoms are everyday things like feeling sluggish, feeling tired. And for me, it was not something extraordinary. As a student-athlete, you feel like you’re running on empty most of the time. It wasn’t until the bruise that I knew something was wrong.
My parents made the trip from Dallas-Ft. Worth Chapel Hill. My father drove all night and my mother took the first flight the next morning.
It took me a few days to absorb the news and get an idea of what will be my new reality for the next eight months. During my 34 day stay in the hospital, my parents took turns visiting for two weeks at a time and my teammates kept me up with daily visits and delicious treats. The swim team even stopped traffic outside the hospital with signs and cheers on the way to their first meet of the season. Fortunately, my healthcare team allowed me to go out and participate in the gesture. It was such a special moment.
I shared my story via Instagram and was overwhelmed with the love and support I received from family, friends and especially the diving community. USA Diving shared my story and responded with video messages from athletes, club teams, and varsity teams sending prayers and well wishes. This resulted in the hashtag of the season #WeDiveForEmily. It’s the most incredible thing I could have imagined. I received hundreds of cards and letters from athletes, some of whom I have never met. Diving is not just a community of athletes, but an extended family that truly lifts up when one of their own needs encouragement.
What happens afterwards?
As a young athlete, I think about life after cancer. Will I be able to dive again? How will chemotherapy affect my body? I often visited with counselors from UNC Lineberger’s AYA (Adolescent and Young Adult) cancer program. This group focuses not only on the physical needs, but also on the mental and emotional needs of adolescents and young adults aged 13-39 with cancer.
Once I started talking with them, I knew I wanted to help raise awareness. I wasn’t entirely comfortable asking my doctors questions about what to expect next. The AYA group provided me with an outlet to discuss issues. I felt like I could open discussions with the group. This is just another example of a support system in place here at UNC. I look forward to continuing with AYA and sharing my story with other Carolina student groups to help spread awareness of what they offer young people.
As I continued my treatment, I saw myself improving mentally and physically. I have a lot of difficult days, but I see myself getting better. I’m 21 and I have cancer. It’s a tough pill to swallow, but once you accept it, it gets easier. My life is not ruined; I know I’m going to get past that, live my life and be great.
I am currently in remission and will continue as an outpatient at UNC Cancer Hospital for the next 40 weeks. I will always remember this journey and those who helped me get to where I am now. I am confident that with excellent medical care, the support of my family, and the incredible teammates and coaches I am blessed to be surrounded by, I will return to the sport I love. Until then, Carolina Swimming and Diving, I will be your biggest fan.
#KICKCANCER’SSPLASH, #WeDiveForEmily, #WeSwimForEmily, #DiveInAndDoGood