Volleyball team helps Mesa's Otzen cope with mother's treatment for breast cancer
Christian Otzen glances into the stands just before the first serve of every home volleyball match.
“I like to know they’re there,” says the freshman outside hitter for Colorado Mesa University.
Once she makes eye contact with her parents, her attention immediately shifts to the match.
A light pink ribbon holds her hair in a ponytail.
When she kneels to tie her shoes, the bright pink lace on her left shoe is tied just a little bit tighter.
“I tie my shoe, the pink one, ‘Do this for Mom,’ and I tighten it and go back to volleyball.”
A couple of months ago, Otzen wasn’t sure she’d be playing volleyball, especially 400 miles from home. Her mother, Danette, was diagnosed in June with breast cancer.
Six months after having a clear mammogram, Danette Otzen, 43, felt a lump during a routine self-exam. It was four days after Christian graduated from high school in Flagstaff, Ariz. She immediately made an appointment with her doctor. A week later she got the diagnosis.
Christian started having second thoughts about school.
“I was just really overwhelmed,” she said. “I felt like maybe I should be (home) for her. I felt like I wouldn’t be doing my part. The rest of my family was going to be there taking care of her, and I wouldn’t be.”
That’s when Danette went into what she calls “Mom Mode.”
“I need to have my surgery, I need to do this, we’re going to go on vacation, and we have two weeks and we’re going to move her, and then I’m going to start chemo,” she said matter-of-factly.
Christian, 18, was going to school; she was going to play college volleyball. Danette was going to have her treatments. The family would get through it.
“If you can just go do what you are supposed to do, then I can do what I need to,” Danette told her daughter.
There were the usual tears when parents take their children to college in August.
Christian knew there was more: It was the last time she’d see her mom looking like Mom.
“I knew when they dropped me off and moved me in, that was the last time I was going to see her normally,” Christian said. “The next time was going to be different, but it was still her, and she was getting better. It was just minus the hair; she pulls it off well.”
Indeed, Danette has a collection of fashionable scarves — thanks, in part, to Christian.
“Everywhere we go, she buys her a new scarf,” setter Jordyn Moody said.
Danette has weekly treatments through mid-December, but the advances in medication have helped her avoid nausea. Although she gets tired, she said she feels “pretty good.”
She and her husband, Chris, have been at every home match this season, making the six-hour drive from Flagstaff. When the Mavs go on the road, the family watches online.
Christian’s 17-year-old brother, Jake, comes along unless he has basketball or baseball practice. Last week several members of the family came to CMU’s “Dig Pink” match, which benefits breast cancer research.
Danette was asked to take the ceremonial first serve, not the first time she’s been included this season.
The Flagstaff High School volleyball team had a “Dig Pink” night and honored her. Danette went to the match right after a chemo treatment, saying there was no way she would miss the event.
After the Mavericks’ Holiday Inn Crossroads Classic, the family was given a large team photo, tinted in pink. It’s hanging in their home in Flagstaff.
Other parents and fans ask Danette how she’s doing, let her know they’re there if Christian needs anything.
Gestures like this sometimes bring tears. They don’t cry because Danette has breast cancer. They cry because they’re overwhelmed by the support they’ve received from people they only recently met — and those they don’t even know.
Last weekend, Danette and Christian were in downtown Grand Junction when a woman who has survived breast cancer stopped to chat and wish her well.
“I never would have thought that you’d come somewhere and be here for a month and a half and not know many people other than the people you’re with every day,” Christian said, “and they come out and tell you, ‘Hey, it’s going to be OK. We have your back 100 percent.’ ‘I don’t know you, but thank you.’ “
The players and coaches wear pink wristbands bearing Danette’s name. Their left shoelaces are hot pink — coach Dave Fleming ties a pink ribbon on his left dress shoe. They wear socks adorned with pink breast-cancer-awareness ribbons.
“If anybody has an idea, they just make it happen,” Moody said. “We all like Christian so much. We want her to feel at home here.”
“I honestly don’t think I could have done it if it wasn’t for all of them,” Christian said. “There are days that are really hard. I get stressed with school and volleyball, and you get to that point where you say, ‘I just want to go home, I want to be with my mom and my family.’ “
On those days, she often goes to seniors Megan Rush, Kelly Regimbal or Rachael Beaty.
Sometimes she just needs them to tell her what she’s feeling is normal for a college freshman. Other times she needs them to be a big sister, give her a place to hang out away from the dorm.
Fleming said he would have understood if Christian had decided to stay home this year. How quickly the Mavericks rallied around her made the whole family know she made the right choice, Danette said.
“I got a text from her dad, and he said it’s almost a perfect situation based on the circumstances,” Fleming said. “That means a lot, but again, that credit has to go to the other 14 kids. They’ve adopted her.”
After Danette finishes chemo, she’ll have two weeks off, then starts six weeks of radiation treatment. The prognosis?
“Cure,” Danette says. “Every time I talk to my doctor, the paperwork says ‘cure.’ That’s beautiful. I’ll take it.”
So will her daughter, who leads CMU with 158 kills, starting all 16 matches. She’s living her dream of playing college volleyball and making an impact as a freshman.
Home weekends are the best, when Christian glances into the stands and sees Danette smiling back at her.
That lets her know it’s time to do what she’s supposed to do — play volleyball.
“It doesn’t slow her down, so it shouldn’t slow me down,” Christian said. “I don’t want to be the one who’s sad. She’s not sad. We’ll get through it.”