SJA swimmer

St. Joseph’s Academy swimmer Katherine Scully

Katherine Scully had a lot to look forward to on Memorial Day in 2018, including a little down time during the summer.

Scully was finishing her first semester at St. Joseph’s Academy when something small changed her life.

Scully, a year-round swimmer, noticed a lump on her collarbone and her parents took her to a pediatrician for a check-up. The family got the call on Memorial Day, saying tests showed the then 15-year-old had cancer, a type of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.

During a dizzying 24-hour period that soon followed, Scully was told about the diagnosis, had tests done, a port implanted for chemotherapy and received a referral to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

“When they first told me I had to ask ‘Is this cancer?’ I didn’t react until we went to see the oncologist that day,” Scully recalled. “I broke down and was sobbing. I was scared.”

Scully now knows with a difference 14 months can make. After completing eight chemo treatments last year, she reached a major milestone — a scan that showed no sign of cancer — in June. Scully is now set to compete for the St. Joseph’s swim team for the first time this fall.

“Her story is a success story, and we are so thankful,” Scully’s mother, Elizabeth, said. “They say St. Jude is the awesome place you never want to be. And it’s true. This experience changed all of us. Katherine had to grow up. She is more mature.”

Scully is ready to compete in multiple events, including her specialties — the 200- and 500-yard freestyles. She enters the season prepared to make the most of her opportunities.

“I am really thankful for the team and the way they took me in,” Scully said. “They made T-shirts for me and supported me every step of the way.”

Scully credits SJA faculty adviser Nan Murtagh for helping her feel comfortable at a new school and on a new team after transferring from University High. Before the diagnosis, Scully was preparing to serve as a team manager last fall because LHSAA rules required her to sit out the season after transferring.

“Part of our culture with the St. Joseph’s swim team is to include girls who want to be involved,” Murtagh said. “I think coach Becca (Gilbert) and coach Jim (Hammatt) did a great job with Katherine. Once the girls were aware of what was going on, they rallied around her.

“She also had an important job as the team photographer. She took pictures of swimmers in the water and on the sidelines that were uploaded to a website for the swimmers and their parents. I told her to make sure she got in some pictures, too.”

Much of Scully’s treatment took place before school started last fall. What she experienced during her brief time at St. Jude helped prepare Scully for what followed, particularly losing her shoulder-length hair.

“At St. Jude, there were all these kids being pulled around in wagons,” Scully said. “They didn’t have hair, and I had never seen that before. After chemo, my hair fell out.

“I wore a wig to school and to Catholic football games. But I didn’t wear one to LSU games and people would stare. That was something I didn’t expect. I learned from that.”

Scully may attract attention for a different reason this fall. She dropped 19 seconds off her previous personal best in the 500 freestyle and now has a 5 minutes, 44 seconds.  

“I love being part of this team, and I can’t wait to compete,” Scully said.

Email Robin Fambrough at rfambrough@theadvocate.com