July 14, 2018 – Cloudcroft (New Mexico) High School junior Ella Puckett undergoes surgery to remove a ruptured tumor – “On your marks.”
July 16, 2018 – Puckett is informed that she has ovarian cancer – “Set.”
August 16, 2018 – Puckett begins three months of chemotherapy treatments – “Bang.”
For Puckett, a three-sport athlete, her battle with cancer was like running the 400-meter dash.
“When you run a 400, yes, it takes physical strength, but it mostly takes heart. You can’t give up when it is really hard,” Puckett said. “When you are diagnosed with cancer you have to push through even though it is really hard and fight to the end.”
The reality of Puckett’s diagnosis hit her especially hard when she thought about missing any more of her high school athletic career.
“High school sports mean everything to me. They are a lot of fun, but they also teach life lessons,” Puckett said.
Puckett had fought back from a knee injury that kept her on the sidelines during volleyball and basketball seasons her sophomore year. She made it back just in time to qualify for the New Mexico Activities Association (NMAA) Track and Field Championships in the 4x100-meter relay, 4x400-meter relay and 1600 Sprint Medley and contributed to the Cloudcroft Lady Bears 2018 State Championship.
“I was upset I was not able to play volleyball because of my knee injury, but I knew that after I recovered I would be back to normal and have two years to play in high school,” Puckett said. “When I was diagnosed [with cancer] I was very sad and upset. It took a while to get it through my head that I had cancer. I still had hopes of playing volleyball. I just wanted to be normal and go to school and volleyball practice.”
The starter had fired the starting device and Puckett was out of the blocks accelerating through the first turn of the cancer 400. She knew that in order to win this race she needed to stay positive.
“I tried to fight it with a positive attitude. There were times I was upset and down but I didn’t stay there,” Puckett said. “There were a lot of younger children that were going through more and harder stuff than I did.”
As the race reached the backstretch, Puckett was testing herself physically. She had lost her hair and a Peripherally Inserted Central Catheter (PICC) line had been inserted for her chemotherapy treatments, but Puckett was determined to play volleyball.
Joni Watson, Cloudcroft varsity volleyball coach, remembers watching Puckett play pee wee basketball in the fourth grade.
“She had little basketball knowledge at the time, but she was so athletic she was standing out. I knew that I wanted her to play volleyball for me,” Watson said.
When Puckett kept pestering Watson with the question, “Can I play? Can I play?” Watson could only think about the cancer and the chemotherapy treatments that Puckett was undergoing.
“My answers to Ella’s pleas became, whatever the doctors say, we will do,” Watson said. “To my surprise they said if you wrap the PICC line she can play. So, I learned how to wrap the PICC line in her arm and we continued on with volleyball practice and games as usual. I say usual because that is all Ella ever wanted.”
Puckett went out onto the court day after day and got to do what she loved – play high school volleyball. Throughout the season, her teammates got an up close and personal view of what it’s like to be a high school student-athlete battling cancer.
“The girls were reminded daily that they should be happy with their situations in life. Everyone has hard things, but you can’t dwell on that. You have to look for the positive,” Watson said. “We all had the opportunity to see her PICC lines get wrapped so she could practice or play in a game. Watch Ella walk into a cold gym with no hair on her head. Watch her as she got sicker with each chemo treatment, but still come back as soon as possible to be with the team.”
As Puckett reached the homestretch in her cancer 400, she had managed to impact her teammates, her coaches and the Cloudcroft community with her positive attitude and determination.
“If we could all have a heart like hers, the world would be a wonderful place,” Watson said. “Life puts us all in situations we don’t think we are ready for or able to handle. When you find yourself there – stand up and fight, use the support of friends, family, community and personal beliefs to keep you going when you’re not sure you have the fight in you and always continue on.”
Puckett is now cancer free and back on the track running the 100-meter hurdles, 4x100 relay and 4x200-meter relay. She plans to continue her high school athletic career with hopes of playing at the next level while earning a degree in kinesiology, leading to a career in physical therapy.