Shortly after being diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, Jaycee Fixsen didn’t want to look at her phone and she didn’t understand the outpouring of support.
She was angry.
Medically, there wasn’t a history or anything she thought would have led her to have cancer. It just happened, which made her angrier.
“I didn’t do something good,” Fixsen told herself. “It was hard being recognized for something that I feel like shouldn’t have happened to me.”
For the longest time, Fixsen searched for the reason why. Even after beating cancer, she’s still not sure.
But now the recent Nixa standout and current freshman for the Missouri State volleyball team knows her story can provide strength and inspiration for others.
Especially for a close friend who needs that strength.
Josie Orellana, 15, is a rising sophomore at Ozark High School who calls Fixsen her “role model.” The volleyball player took private lessons from Fixsen and often attended her games to cheer on the rival Lady Eagles even though it may be frowned upon in Christian County.
In June, while Fixsen was making occasional trips to St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Orellana discovered red dots on her legs which caused her to go to the doctor.
After bloodwork was done, she was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia — otherwise known as AML. The form of cancer impacts the bone marrow and limits the ability to produce good cells. Orellana was quickly sent to Memphis and will have to undergo a bone marrow transplant in the near future.
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Not only has Orellana changed Fixsen’s perspective but Fixsen has inspired Orellana. While volleyball used to be the main reason Orellana looked up to the former state champion, she also saw the strength it was going to take to beat cancer herself.
“She has so much strength now that her treatment is over,” Orellana said. “She’s ready to get back to it and start volleyball again. She didn’t want to wait and recover and she just pushes through everything.”
Jaycee Fixsen’s fight
Fixsen’s journey through beating lymphoma started in late February. She noticed some unusual fatigue during her final year in a Nixa uniform but didn’t think much about it until her diagnosis.
After her diagnosis, Fixsen never feared death. She only feared the thought of missing out on volleyball.
Fixsen, 18, had established herself as one of the top players in the state with 403 kills her senior year while earning American Volleyball Coaches Association All-American Honorable Mention honors. She won a state championship in 2019 before a runner-up finish in 2020.
Fixsen was an early enrollee at Missouri State in January and was able to work out with the team. MSU head coach Steven McRoberts thought Fixsen was someone who could make an impact as a freshman.
“She’s an uber-competitor and that’s what stuck out while recruiting her,” McRoberts said. “It’s not very often that players are so self-motivated that as soon as practice is over, she’s out there passing, serving, hitting and she just wants to be great and is willing to put in the work to be great. It’s so refreshing and it bleeds into the whole team.”
The news then came out of nowhere in late February. A massage therapist felt nodes on her neck and told her she needed to get it checked out. She did and it sent her life in a whirlwind for the next few months.
Fixsen got through it mentally by doing the limited workouts she could in the weight room. She praised the MSU volleyball team’s athletic trainer for always being there to allow her to vent. She went through three months of chemotherapy and had a pin in her arm, but she did the limited exercises she was allowed to do to escape.
“It just felt like a substitute because I was in there every other day and I just missed it so much,” Fixsen said. “All of the times I was lifting, it was just a break from reality and I could just do what I do.”
Just 98 days after learning of her diagnosis, Fixsen was told she was in the clear. A month and a half afterward, she returned to Memphis to ring the bell and give herself that bit of closure.
In recent days, Fixsen has been back on the volleyball court, easing her way into passing and hitting while getting back to being the volleyball star that she is.
“I think my biggest outcome was just seeing everything from a new perspective,” Fixsen said. “I remember thinking in the middle of treatment that I’d rather have my worst practice in the world right now. I would take anything just to be able to play.”
In those months while battling, Fixsen spent a lot of it away from her phone. Numerous teams from around the region showed different ways they supported her, but she didn’t feel worthy of the attention. When her diagnosis became public and everyone blew up her phone, she rarely responded.
That changed after learning of Orellana’s diagnosis. Fixsen now wants to do everything she can to give that love and attention to her.
“I want to support her,” Fixsen said. “It was an eye-opener too that all these people were supporting me. I’m just so blessed that it was so many.”
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Josie Orellana’s journey
Orellana was suddenly sick in May and never found out why. She figured it was just a virus going around and felt better but never 100% back to being herself.
Headaches and fatigue followed. She often thought she would pass out and later discovered little red speckles all over her leg. She went to the doctor because the family knew something was going on.
When the AML diagnosis was read, Orellana’s body went numb. She felt like she was in a nightmare until she burst into tears.
It couldn’t be right, the family told themselves. Just a few days earlier, she was at a college volleyball camp for four to five hours a day and got through it just fine. She worked out with a trainer three-to-four days a week and she was as fit as could be.
It was the unfortunate truth. Fear for her life followed, but the family quickly reacted by making plans to get her to St. Jude in Memphis to begin treatment as soon as possible.
Orellana is currently an outpatient in Memphis while living in an apartment and preparing for her bone marrow transplant. She won’t have to go through radiation and has already gone through two rounds of chemo as they get her body ready. Because she was in such good shape going into treatment, doctors have been confident about her outlook.
Orellana finds strength in her faith and in those who have reached out. Although it’s difficult from afar to see the Snapchat and Instagram stories from Ozark volleyball practice, her friends are making sure she’s included.
When her summer team went to nationals recently in Indianapolis, they wore shirts to support her. They also had cutouts of her face to let her know that she was there in their hearts.
Hoping to make varsity this season, Orellana’s No. 35 uniform has been set aside for when she makes it back. She can already envision the hugs and tears that will flow when she checks in for the very first time.
Orellana’s club coach, Kailey Bridges, and club director, former Olympian and area legend Lori Endicott-Vandersnick, have already offered her a spot on next season’s team even though she couldn’t attend tryouts.
Her brother recently got a tattoo with her volleyball number and his football number and the phrase “Orellana Strong” to show his support. Even his mom was OK with the tattoo.
Different colleges have reached out to Orellana with encouragement. The Ole Miss team sent her a game-worn uniform in addition to a ball. A Purdue volleyball player reached out and told her a personal story of how her brother fought and beat cancer. People from all over reached out to tell her how big of an inspiration she is.
“I posted something on Instagram and a boy texted me and told me how inspired he was by my post and how many lives I could impact if I kept my positivity up,” Orellana said. “I didn’t even know this guy and it was just really nice of him to say.”
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A different type of private lesson
Fixsen has gone from giving Orellana private lessons on the volleyball court to giving private lessons on beating cancer.
Fixsen often texts Orellana to check in and see how she’s doing. She’s sent a package in the mail with slippers and a blanket.
On a recent visit to Memphis, Fixsen connected with Orellana and pulled her aside to give her some advice.
“She told me a bunch of things that happen once you’re done with treatment,” Orellana said. “She can’t drink cold water because it reminds her of chemo. There’s a certain smell from the cafeteria that she said freaks her out. Stuff like that. She gave me some tips like don’t eat your favorite foods while going through chemo. Don’t do this and don’t do that.”
Orellana found it comforting that someone was there for her. Fixsen was already her role model before because of her volleyball stardom and she’s turned into a whole new different figure in her life now.
The strength that Fixsen has shown inspires Orellana as she thanks God every morning she wakes up for the ability to see another day. One day too, Orellana wants to be as strong as her when she walks outside the hospital doors for good.
“It’s just very inspirational to see her get back at it,” Orellana said. “You wouldn’t even be able to tell that it even happened. It’s like her life is back to normal.”
Someday soon, Orellana plans on being able to do the same thing.
As for Fixsen, she’s still searching for the reason why she was given cancer. As frustrating as it was in the beginning, she’s found peace with it knowing her story can inspire others.
Perhaps that reason was to help her friend get through her battle.
“I feel like there’s a plan for everything and I feel like God wanted me to have it so I can help out my friend who has it now,” Fixsen said. “She plays volleyball, she loves the game as much as me and she’s going through way worse things than me right now.
“I feel like I just have to push through for her and keep telling her that it will be all right.”
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist with the Springfield News-Leader. You can contact him at 417-371-6987, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter at @WyattWheeler_NL. He’s also the co-host of Sports Talk on Jock Radio weekdays from 4-6 p.m.