Don't let anything break you

by Donna Lampkin Stephens

This is not how Sara Stovall planned to spend the fall of 2013.

Stovall, a May graduate of Conway High School, was supposed to be playing volleyball now for Arkansas Tech, which signed her to a scholarship in her sport. The 5-foot-11 outside hitter had started for Laura Crow’s Lady Cats for the last three years, and she earned all-state honors as a sophomore and senior.

But instead of starring on the court for the Golden Suns this fall, Stovall is at home in Conway, taking nine hours of online instruction in between every-other-week chemotherapy treatments.

Her opponent now is cancer.

By the middle of July, Stovall had finished shopping for her move to Russellville and had begun packing for her freshman year. Her summer had been filled with workouts in anticipation of college volleyball.

But she woke up one night and felt a lump in her neck. As Crow recounted it, Stovall woke her mother, Frankie. Her doctor was concerned enough to order a CAT scan; ultrasounds and biopsies eventually yielded a diagnosis of Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

According to, Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a cancer of the lymphatic system — part of the immune system. Cells in the lymphatic system grow abnormally and may spread beyond it. The disease is treatable, and those diagnosed have the chance for a full recovery.

If his daughter had to get cancer, Stovall’s father, Curtis, said, this was one to get.

Frankie Stovall said her daughter was diagnosed at Stage II. According to, that means the disease is in two different lymph nodes or in a portion of tissue or an organ and nearby lymph nodes but is still limited to a section of the body either above or below the diaphragm.

“Hers is above the abdomen,” Frankie Stovall said. “The tumor is in her neck, and she has a couple toward her heart, but that makes it easier to treat than those in the stomach.”

She said there was no family history of lymphoma.

“My father had colon cancer, but that was resolved,” Frankie said. “There’s been nothing like this.”

Stovall’s treatment includes chemotherapy every two weeks. At press time, she had had three treatments; she said it usually took five or six days to recover from each one. Side effects, she said, include nausea and hair loss.

She seems to have handled the hair loss well. Before starting chemo, she donated about 12 inches of her brownish-blonde hair to Locks of Love, which provides hairpieces for children suffering from long-term medical hair loss from any diagnosis.

“I figured it was going to be gone anyway, so I might as well put it to good use,” she said. “I had thought about (such a donation) before, but this pushed it. It made it more personal.

“Losing your hair is just another thing to deal with. It’s nothing to stress over.”

Throughout the ordeal, the family’s mantra has become “one day at a time.”

“That’s all you can do,” Frankie said. “Chemo weeks are hard. On opposite weeks, she bounces back and is able to work on some of her online classes.

“I’m trying to encourage her to do the best she can on the days she can. We’ve continued with our life as normal as possible. Her sister (Mary, a junior at CHS) goes to all her a
ctivities; I work.

“We fit chemo in like any other activity.”

Chemo will continue until early January, after which the goal is for Sara to resume her life.

“We’re going to try to plan on her going to school when Tech starts in the middle of January,” Frankie said. “That’s our goal — to load her up and take her off to school.”

Tech has allowed her to use her scholarship for her courses in psychology, sociology and criminal justice this fall. Her Arkansas Lottery scholarship will become active when she enrolls on campus. ATU is also holding a volleyball scholarship for her for 2014 if she is able to return.

“Tech has been outstanding,” Frankie said. “We couldn’t ask for anything better.”

Stovall took two Advanced Placement English classes and a college math course while at Conway High, so when she starts in January she will have 18 hours of college credit.

And she hopes to return to the volleyball court.

“But we don’t have any idea what toll this will take on her body,” Frankie said. “We’re just focused on her trying to beat cancer and stay healthy. But Tech will honor her scholarship, so if she wants to play, she’s on the team.”

Sara said she planned to join her new team on the bench when she can this fall “when I feel my best.”

Even though she’s moving on, Stovall has been touched by the response of her Lady Cat teammates, who have been very supportive through the cancer ordeal. After Curtis Stovall notified Crow of the situation, her response was, “What can we do?”

So the Lady Cats, who do an annual breast cancer fundraiser in October when they play in pink uniforms and send the proceeds to the Dig Pink Foundation for breast cancer research, will add purple to their pink on Oct. 8 against Fort Smith Northside.

“Each cancer has a color, and lymphoma is purple, so we’re going to tie in pink and purple and donate money to Sara’s family,” Crow said. “Sara’s a really strong person and will be just fine. She has a great family, and her teammates love her and care about her and want to do stuff for her.”

The Lady Cats sent notes of encouragement to Stovall, who keeps them in her room for inspiration. Crow mentioned one from a younger girl who had never played on the same squad as Stovall that included the message, “Sara, I didn’t know you but I watched you play, and you were very scary on the court. Glad we didn’t have to practice against you.”

Stovall said she hoped to be at Buzz Bolding Arena for the Dig Pink match against Fort Smith Northside.

Crow said this was the first time she had dealt with a former player having to battle cancer.

“We’ve had some on the team who had undergone chemo before, but it’s shocking,” she said. “You’re always proud of your players and always excited to hear about how they’re doing in college. We were looking forward to seeing how Sara would contribute and getting to watch her play.

“All that comes to a screeching halt when you get news like that. You just don’t expect that stuff to happen, and it happens every day. We’ve been lucky.”

The positive attitude will stand Stovall in good stead throughout this journey. She attributes it to her family.

“That’s just how I’ve been raised,” she said. “I’ve been taught to not let things hold you back, to keep on going, to have a strong attitude, don’t let anything break you.

“There’s more to life than focusing on just one problem.”

It’s a good lesson for all of us.