River Hill goalkeeper Katy Hudson knew what was wrong as soon as she walked into her house that chilly February evening. She looked at her mother, who was wiping tears from her eyes, and her dad, whose expression told her that her life was about to change.
"Don't tell me, don't tell me," she remembered saying. "Please, just don't tell me."
Hudson's dad put his arms around her and broke the news he'd learned a few hours earlier: Katie had Hodgkin's disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system.
"Telling her ripped through my core because there was something attacking my child, and there was nothing I could do to stop it," said her father, Don Hudson. "I told her I wanted her to remember two things: She was going to live through this, and she wasn't going to go through it alone."
"I heard the word 'cancer' and I felt everything I had worked for was going to be taken away," Katy Hudson said last week, seven months after hearing the diagnosis. "I was so scared. This is cancer, so death has to come to your mind."
In mid-January, Hudson, 16, felt a small lump on her neck during indoor track practice. Soon the lump started getting bigger -- growing to "where it looked like I had a chicken nugget attached to my neck, and then I started to get really scared," she said.
The first set of tests was inconclusive. Doctors thought the cyst could be from cat-scratch fever, lyme disease, rocky mountain spotted fever or an ailment contracted from an insect during her family's cruise to Hawaii the summer before.
"It was hard to think it was something horrible when she was feeling fine," said Susan Hudson, Katy's mother. "As a parent, it was a nightmare to go through it -- to see something was wrong with Katy -- but I kept praying that it wouldn't be cancer."
"But then on February 3, we went to Howard County General Hospital, and the doctors cut some of it off and did tests on it," Katy said. "They told us they would call us in four days with the results."
The next day, the family learned the diagnosis. Over the next four months, Katy underwent chemotherapy and radiation, losing her strength but surrounded by supportive friends.
"As a team, we wanted to reach out to her, but what do you say to her? She's just a kid, and she had what can be a fatal disease -- my grandmother died of cancer, and I watched her suffer," River Hill Coach Willie Ibarra said. "We knew what Katy was going to have to go through, but instead of calling attention to it by throwing her a party to show our support, we all called her all the time and let her know we were there for her."
Hudson's treatment caused her to lose muscle mass, which required her to take steroids so she would be strong enough to attend school and, almost as important to her, continue to play soccer. "I got so weak that I remember I tore a calf muscle in my left leg just walking up the stairs to go to my room," Hudson said. "But cancer was not going to take my life. It wasn't going to stop me from playing soccer or from going to school. What was I supposed to do, sit home all day and think about having cancer?"
Hudson went to school -- sometimes two hours late because she was too weak to get out of bed -- dressed in baggy clothes because she was ashamed of her frail figure. Her body was no longer lean and sculpted, and she grew tired walking up a flight of steps.
"You could tell how much it bothered her that she was not in the best shape of her life, like she was before she came down with cancer," said senior forward Jackie Kahler, a close friend of Hudson's.
"There would always be letters from my friends and other students and my teachers, and I would take them to chemotherapy and read them, and they helped me pull through," Hudson said. "They really helped get me through this. My friends were always there for me, even when it got bad. There was a time when one of my friends was brushing my hair and a clump fell out, and we'd just cry together. But I wasn't going to give up. I was going to beat this."
And soccer was her biggest ally. An All-Met last season, she returned to the field in the spring and continued playing through the summer for the Reston Football Club Under-16 Rovers, which she viewed as an integral part of therapy.
"Soccer gave me my life back," Hudson said. "To me, playing was the best treatment I could do because it took my mind off cancer, and I could still do something I had always loved."
Hudson's cancer is now in remission and, if not for a one-inch scar on the side of her neck, she looks just like she did last year when she posted one of the best seasons in county history. Hudson saved 87 of 90 shots and posted a school-record 14 shutouts to lead her team to the county and Maryland 3A East Region titles.
"I think going through this will make me a better player," Hudson said. "I came so close to having everything taken from me, but now that I've gotten through it, there's nothing I can't do if I put my mind to it."