CVCC guard Agrusa overcomes cancer, gains faith

CVCC guard Agrusa overcomes cancer, gains faith

HICKORY, N.C. — Tory Agrusa helped beat 47 different opponents during her basketball career at Catawba Valley Community College, but perhaps her greatest victory off the court came recently when the 20-year-old guard from Franklin, N.C. defeated breast cancer.

Agrusa, who was named All-Region X on the court this past winter, initially discovered a small lump in her left breast this past March — just one week after the Red Hawks' basketball season ended.

"It caught me off guard," Agrusa said of the lump. "I thought it might just be a cyst and be simple to get rid of with medications. I didn't think anything of it for a while."

After speaking with her mother, Agrusa initially had the mass examined by a doctor in Morganton, but she was told that it was just a cyst.

However, the lump in her breast continued to grow, and Agrusa sought out a second opinion — this time with Dr. Cindy Aldridge at Mission Health in Asheville.

"She told me it wasn't normal for a 20 year old," Agrusa said. "She gave me a mammogram and an ultrasound on both breasts. My right breast was completely healthy, but when she saw my left one, it was 100 percent opposite of my right one. The results came back, and she told me it wasn't a cyst and that it was breast cancer. I'm 20 years old. That can't be possible. She told me that cancer had no age limit."

Agrusa said the most difficult part in learning that she had cancer was knowing she'd have to be away from the court.

"Basketball has been my entire life," she said. "Getting the news that I couldn't play was actually harder than saying I had cancer."

Hesitant to tell anyone at first, Agrusa slowly informed her family members of her condition.

"I didn't want anyone to feel bad for me that I'm going through it," she said. "I didn't want anyone taking care of me, but it wasn't working."

The hardest of those conversations was with her sister Vanessa, who is currently playing basketball at the University of North Georgia.

"I told (Vanessa) I couldn't play basketball anymore," Agrusa said. "She asked 'why?,' and I told her mom said our family has a long history of cancer, and I have it. Vanessa was just frozen. She didn't know what to say. She didn't know how to make me feel better. I told her not to feel bad for me."

Agrusa also told Tisha England, her head coach at Catawba Valley Community College, and her Red Hawk teammates.

"Some of my teammates were in there when I told her," Agrusa said. "My teammates didn't treat me any differently. They treated me like I was a normal healthy 20 year old. They were still messing around with me and pushing me around. I was glad that they didn't treat me any differently."

England took the news of Agrusa's cancer hard, but remained strong for her student athlete.

"Immediately, I left and got myself together. I cried a little bit. I talked to the Lord," England said. "I started working, trying to see what we could do to get her help. From that point every day I was constantly trying to make sure she was alright and she was in the right direction. For a moment, she kind of pushed us away, which I understand because when you're going through something that serious it's a mind battle. All I could do was pray for her."

Catawba Valley freshman Alizeyah Mitchell, who England partnered Agrusa with before the start of the season, was also supportive of her friend and teammate.

"Once I got through my own emotions, I knew I had to be there for Tory," Mitchell said. "I knew I had to be there to support her and keep her smiling and keep her laughing. When she was down, I needed to pick her up and tell her it was going to be okay and alright. We were put in this program and as partners for a reason. We were going to get through it together."

The good news for Agrusa was that her cancer was discovered early.

Wanting to avoid surgery, she started trial medical treatment immediately, but unfortunately those trials were unsuccessful.

"My body was going downhill from there," Agrusa said. "I didn't tell anyone for a long time because I didn't want anyone to worry. I just didn't want anyone to feel bad for me. I started medications, treatment and blood work. It just got worse as the weeks went on. That's when I wanted to quit."

One month before her scheduled surgery, Agrusa fought through her weakness from the treatments and found the strength to attend the team's end-of-year banquet at The Pit Indoor Kart Racing in Mooresville.

It was a much-needed experience for the sophomore guard.

"That day I just had energy, and something inside me just said to go and that I would have fun," Agrusa said. "I went, and everyone was very helpful for me. They were good to me."

Mitchell and her Red Hawk teammates tried to make Agrusa as comfortable as possible during the banquet, racing her in go-karts and playing laser tag with her.

"As a group, we tried to be there and make her smile and continue to be the same around her," Mitchell said. "We didn't want to make her feel awkward or feel different or feel that she's a different person. She's still a part of CVCC and a part of our lives for a reason."

On June 15, Agrusa was scheduled to have surgery to remove her left breast, and she feared the worst.

"During pre-op, they were basically telling me they were going to take my entire left breast out," Agrusa said. "They told me not to worry when I wake up and there's nothing there. I thought well now I'm a 20 year old that only has one breast."

After undergoing surgery, Agrusa's doctors were amazed to learn that that the tissue around her lump had created a inflamed wall, preventing the cancerous cells from spreading throughout the rest of her breast.

Doctors removed only the cancerous tissue and replaced it with an implant to fill its void.

When she woke up, Agrusa was stunned by the news.

"When I woke up and I still had my breast, I was confused," Agrusa said. "The doctor waited until I was fully aware of my surroundings and awake. He told me that the cancer didn't spread. He said it looked like it was in one area and was inflamed. I was thinking that's impossible. I thought I was one lucky person."

England, who lost both her mother and grandmother to cancer, was excited to hear the positive news from Agrusa's surgery.

"When I got the news, I rejoiced and kept rejoicing. I knew that she had to tell her story," England said. "Somebody somewhere is going through the same thing that she went through. The world needs hope. The world needs to know that there is a God we serve that is a living God that is still in the healing business and deliverance business."

After talks with both her uncle, who is a pastor at LifeSpring Community Church in Franklin, and her mother, Agrusa has a newfound faith in God after all she has been through.

"Once basketball was taken away from me and everything was stripped away from me, I felt mentally and emotionally naked," she said. "I didn't feel like I could do anything. After everything that's happened and becoming a new person, it's a lot clearer of what God wants me to do. He took basketball away from me just so I could pay attention to Him and focus on Him until I have a relationship with Him. After I had that, He's slowly put basketball back in my life."

With a new lease on life, Agrusa headed back to California this week to spend some much-needed time with her family — seeing them for the first time since February.

"They are beyond excited. They are antsy," Agrusa said. "They are excited for me, and I am excited to see them because I haven't seen them in a long time. I told them that they could love on me all I want when I get there.

"After all of this, I know what I want to do in life," she added. "I know what my purpose is now. I think for the past two years of being in coach England's program and all of the lessons that she has taught, I thought I wasn't going to use any of it. That was a big laugh in my face because now I'm using everything that she's taught me. I think that life is great right now. It's a whole new perspective of what I want to do in life."

England is excited to see the next steps in Agrusa's life, and she knows there is a bright future for the recent CVCC grad.

"I'm proud of her for fighting through adversity," England said. "I know that without a shadow of a doubt that's she going to go far in life. She'll be able to tell her story and spread the gospel. God took nothing out of this and made something. This is a story He tells on a daily basis. I look forward to hearing greater things from Tory."