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Utah volleyball will honor 11-year-old cancer survivor as honorary member of team Friday

SALT LAKE CITY — In the weeks and months after her 8-year-old daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer, Annette Turner never imagined what form the angels would take.

“Honestly, I broke down,” she said of the phone call that informed her that her youngest daughter had an extremely rare form of breast cancer three years ago. “I couldn’t even tell you how I got home.”

She remembers leaving work and calling her husband from the parking lot. She has no memory of getting home.

“I remember getting home, being in the kitchen and just collapsing,” Turner said. “Cancer is scary. When they say it’s a rare form, what does that mean? Do they treat it differently? What is this going to mean to her? It’s devastation.”

The Turners have too much experience with cancer. Turner’s husband battled Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and she dealt with a rare form of cervical cancer. So when then 8-year-old Chrissy came into their bedroom to show them a lump in her breast, they were concerned. They couldn’t imagine, however, that she would be diagnosed, thanks to their prodding of doctors, with breast cancer.

“It’s surreal to this day,” she said. “You just can’t wrap your head around it.”

Chrissy underwent a mastectomy and the removal of three lymph nodes. Now 11, the slight, soft-spoken girl deals with frequent doctor visits to make sure the cancer doesn’t return.

A few months ago, Annette fielded another phone call. This one, however, would be the kind of blessing she never anticipated.

It was the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation telling her that the Utah Volleyball team would like to adopt Chrissy as an honorary team member.

“These girls are a bunch of angels,” Annette said before Wednesday’s match against Washington State. “They have pulled our family in and just showered us with love. For Chrissy, it’s been uplifting, energizing and honestly, I think she’ just as good for the team as they are for her. It’s like having a whole team of big sisters. You see the synergy, text and say hey, ‘Good luck in your game.’ You see the smiles it brings. It warms your heart to know, that we’re just so welcome here.”

It’s given the family the kind of recreation opportunity that being inundated with medical bills took from them.

“Let’s be real,” Annette said. “When you’re paying medical bills, you don’t have money for this. (Sporting events) have never been a life for us because we could never afford that option. So it’s been incredibly fun.”

Utah head coach Beth Launiere said she asked her staff to look into the Friends of Jaclyn program, which is a foundation that started with one young girl’s cancer diagnosis. The non-profit organization pairs children with a college sports team. For Launiere, this wasn’t a commitment she took lightly.

“She’s a part of this program forever,” Launiere said, who had a close friend die after battling breast cancer a year ago. “It just really resonated with me that this would be wonderful. And then when we met Chrissy. She is just the cutest kid.” But, the coach points out, she is more than an adorable addition to the team. “She’s so brave,” Launiere said. “You could tell that she’s been through so much, and she’s just so courageously sitting there listening to her mom tell her story. I was just so amazed.”

When the players asked Chrissy what number she wanted for her uniform, she asked for number four.

“It’s my family’s lucky number,” said the 11-year-old after joining her teammates for game introductions.

That number also happens to be worn by sophomore right side hitter Kenzie Koerber. That created an instant bond, according to Koerber.

“I think that kind of sparked our bond,” she said. “I just feel like I should take her under my wing.”

So in Chrissy’s first trip to the locker room, Koerber pulled up a chair next to hers and invited the girl to join her at their locker.

“We took a picture next to the locker,” she said. “Now I always pull up a chair right next to her.”

Koerber said getting to know Chrissy and her family has made her appreciate aspects of her student-athlete experience that sometimes get obscured by the grind of college athletics.

“I wake up some mornings and like, I think, I don’t want to go do weights,” said Koerber. “I don’t want to go to school. I don’t want to go to practice. And then, I (meet) this girl who is 11 years old now, but she was diagnosed (with breast cancer) when she was 8, and I realize, my problems compared to hers are little.”

The team will honor Chrissy at Friday’s Pink Game when the Utes host No. 21 Washington at 6 p.m. at the Huntsman Center. Fans who wear pink get into the match for free.