BILLINGS — At night, when it was the quietest and she couldn’t sleep, Marissa Van Atta played Pac-Man.
She didn’t plunk quarters into a machine, this was internal.
“It was visualization,” Van Atta said. “I would imagine the Pac-Man eating the cancer cells.”
Van Atta, who never backed down from any challenge, was going to use any means necessary in her biggest fight.
A year ago, she wasn’t battling opponents for rebounds or playing tenacious defense for the Rocky Mountain College women’s basketball team as planned, she was enduring chemotherapy treatments in her struggle against acute myeloid leukemia.
Van Atta has played 22 games for the Battlin’ Bears, averaging almost 7 points a game. She was slowed at midseason by a stress fracture in her foot, suffered during games in Arizona in December.
But the stress fracture pales in comparison to the difficult and painful road she had to take to get back on the court.
“It’s a miracle she’s out there,” marveled Rocky coach Wes Keller. “She’s just an inspiration to so many.”
The long road
The 24-year-old Van Atta — “I’m getting old,” she says with a smile — transferred to Rocky in the summer of 2017 after starting her collegiate career at Montana State Billings.
Her final months with the Yellowjackets were marred by an upper respiratory illness with 11 emergency room visits during the season. Suffering extreme fatigue, Van Atta found herself falling asleep almost everywhere, including airports and hotels when the Jackets traveled.
She was eventually diagnosed with overtraining syndrome and advised to take three months away from basketball.
The Billings Senior graduate joined the Rocky program for the fall of 2017.
Bothered by flu-like symptoms in September, she went to a series of doctors, urged by her mother Shelley to get a blood test.
The blood tests came back on a Thursday.
"My mom called me when I was in class," Van Atta remembered. She had already had completed an individual workout earlier that morning.
Given the news, Van Atta returned to class, gathered her things and left. She was given a platelet transfusion at a Billings hospital that night and was in a Denver hospital by Friday.
Van Atta’s blood platelets had dropped to 16,000 (normal range 450,000) and her white blood cell count and other indicators were quite alarming. Stopping any bleeding becomes an issue when the platelet count is that low.
“When I got diagnosed,” she said of rock bottom, her voice dropping of hearing the word leukemia. “For two months, it was a rough battle.”
Her days were filled with endless rounds of treatment. Van Atta cut her long blonde hair, kept a pair of five-pound barbells in her room to lift when she felt better and kept firmly focused on her future.
“I put my worries to Him,” said Van Atta, motioning upward. “I had to focus on recovery. There are people who had it tougher than myself. I had to focus on the future. I wanted to keep playing basketball, ride my horses.
“I knew there was more to life than what was happening.”
Pain was a constant companion. The portals for the chemotherapy got infected and the headaches were worse.
Sleep was a welcome option.
“I lost track of time,” Van Atta said. “I lost a week where I don’t recall much.”
Through the entire process, her family — her mother, father Larry and brothers Nick and John — was a pillar of support.
At home in the fall of 2017, doctors gave her the clearance to venture outside again. Van Atta even showed up at some practices and games to be with her teammates and shoot a few baskets.
She also made some significant lifestyle changes, looking for any edge against the deadly disease.
“I became a vegetarian,” she said. “I did a whole cleansing of my body. I was so focused on kicking cancer’s butt.”
But one big part of her life was still missing. The connection with her horses and her dogs.
One Saturday morning, with much caution, Van Atta reunited with her horse Lucca.
Having already hugged her dogs, she slowly approached her horse.
“I was wearing two masks,” she said. “He was standing outside. He didn’t recognize me at first.”
Van Atta slowly pulled down the masks to reveal her face and Lucca took a step forward.
She clung to the horse.
“It was very emotional. Very uplifting.”
Finally, good news
It was appropriately around Easter when Van Atta and her family received the call.
She was cancer free.
“It’s truly a miracle, that’s the only way I can describe it,” Van Atta said. “It was almost like I was reborn. My whole body felt new.
“I had that last chemo treatment and for peace of mind, that fourth quarter mentality, I wanted to do one more to make sure it was absolutely gone. Like one more sprint to make sure that was the end of it.
“I knew right then, my mind was focused for the summer.”
Van Atta was going to play basketball again.
Back to the court
She began riding her bike in April and doing minor workouts with trainer Nich Pertuit.
“They were simple workouts with a lot of rest,” Van Atta said. “I had lost so much muscle.”
She got back on her horses and began increasing her workouts with teammate Justyn Juhl in July and other family members. Van Atta also participated in open gyms at Montana State Billings.
As a precautionary measure — "I want to be a mother someday” — Van Atta had her eggs harvested.
She and Matthew Jones got engaged on Jan. 27.
A bottle of hand sanitizer was always within reach when working out in the weight room. Van Atta had to make sure she didn’t touch her hand to her face and stay away from people who were coughing.
And every nose bleed, every bruise had to be closely watched.
“I had lived in a bubble for nine months,” she said. “But at some point, you just have to jump in there and trust your immune system."
Van Atta kept Keller informed of her progress when preseason conditioning sessions began.
“That first practice, emotions were eerie,” she remembered.
The coach, making sure Van Atta was OK, kept a watchful eye on the senior.
“She’s a tough, tough player,” Keller said. “She’s a high energy kid with a motor.”
Struggling to find her basketball rhythm, Van Atta’s season got off to a slow start as she tried to find her role again.
“I was struggling with my rebounding,” she said. “I knew what I wanted to do but my brain wasn’t firing. With chemo, you feel like you’re in a fog. I journaled everything down. I see how my mood changed.”
Van Atta has scored in double figures five times this season, including a season-best 21 points in the Frontier Conference opener against Montana State-Northern.
And while her minutes have fluctuated, one thing has never wavered: her effort.
“You have to leave it all on the court,” Van Atta said. “You never know when your last day will be."
And nobody understands that better than her.
“It’s a blessing, a second chance,” Van Atta continued of her return. “I know I embrace every moment of life. I still have my struggles, my difficulties. I try not to get frustrated when things are going well.
“I appreciate all the little things, all the different aspects of life. Every day you wake up is a gift. You get knocked down eight times, you get up nine. This is a second-chance opportunity.
“Cancer puts everything in perspective of what’s truly important in life. I appreciate everything tenfold.”