It is her favorite place in the world, but it is also the place where she had to deliver the hardest news of her life.

As 12-year-old Alana Cook stood in the middle of the Northside Middle School basketball court Thursday afternoon, surrounded by her best friends and teammates, she could not hold back the tears as she told them she had been diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor.

“I want you guys to know that you’ll be in my heart, and I’ll always be there for you, on or off the court,” Alana told her friends as they cried together on the court, shocked and saddened by the news.

Before her diagnosis, the 5-foot-8 seventh-grader lived and breathed Columbus Comets basketball.

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After being named the most valuable player in back-to-back seasons at Schmitt Elementary School, Alana was selected to play on the eighth-grade travel team at Northside as a seventh-grader.

With her sights set on the WNBA, Alana has been practicing both with her team and on her own to hone her skills and stay at the top of her game.

“She’s a good talent, she’s athletic, she’s long, and she has a great work ethic” said Pat McKee, the Columbus North High School girls basketball coach, who has worked with Alana in the Comets program. “I would love to see her come to North, and I hope she’ll be healthy enough to do that.”

Despite her on-court performance, Alana’s mom, Holly Cook, said her daughter was struggling with delayed reactions and, in general, didn’t feel quite right. Although the family didn’t understand her symptoms, Cook said she never believed Alana’s health issues were a serious matter.

But that changed Oct. 3, when Alana was hit in the head during a game of dodgeball with her friends.

The resulting headaches were terrible and nauseating, Alana said, and she suffered from extreme fatigue, which made it difficult even to get out of bed. She and her mother spent nearly every other day in the pediatrician’s office trying to pinpoint the problem.

“She told me she felt so bad she felt like she was going to die,” Cook said.

Problem diagnosed

Although she initially was told she had a severe concussion, a CT scan showed a more serious problem on Alana’s brain. She was referred to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.Alana’s headaches and fatigue were not caused by the blow from the dodgeball, the doctor said, but by a brain tumor that is causing a condition known as hydrocephalus, which is the gathering of fluid on the brain.“To have a doctor … tell me she had a tumor, she didn’t have a concussion, I can’t even describe how that feels,” Cook said.

Alana was diagnosed with choroid plexus carcinoma, a malignant tumor in the pineal gland near the back of the base of the brain. The mass is about 3 centimeters thick and is preventing the natural flow of spinal fluid through the body, which causes hydrocephalus.

To release the fluid from her brain, Riley doctors put a shunt in Alana’s body to drain the fluid into her abdomen.

“Right after surgery I could just tell I was a different person because all of the fluid was gone,” Alana said.

But the most dangerous surgery is still to come.

On Thursday, Alana will return to Riley, where surgeons will attempt to cut the tumor out of her brain.

Doctors had been reluctant to remove the mass because of its proximity to the cerebellum, brain stem and spinal cord, but the results of the biopsy made the operation necessary.

Alana’s surgeon has dedicated an entire day to the delicate operation, clearing his schedule to allow himself to focus on Alana and her health.

“Thursday is Alana day,” Cook said.

After surgery, Alana will remain at Riley for two to three weeks. Then, she will begin chemotherapy, which Cook said is not necessarily guaranteed to work.

Staying strong

In the midst of the tests, the surgeries and the fear of the unknown, those who know Alana best say the mature 12-year-old has been their pillar of strength during this difficult time.“She’s stronger than I am,” Cook said. “She’s stronger than all of us.”During their three-day stay at Riley, Cook said, she was often sick with worry and did not want to eat while her daughter was being treated.

But determined that her own struggles would not affect those around her, Alana went to extremes to persuade her mother to take care of herself while the doctors took care of her.

“She told her neurosurgeon, ‘Well, I’m just not going to eat if my mommy doesn’t eat,’” Cook said.

Although she has begun home schooling for the near future, Alana also has been an inspiration to her friends at school, who say they are noticing the impact of losing their teammate both on and off the court.

Mya Hutton, who was known Alana since preschool and played Comets basketball with her at Schmitt and Northside, said school has been dull without her best friend.

To make up for her absence at school, Mya has visited Alana at home and brought her goodies, such as cake or Starbucks drinks.

Alana’s other friends have visited her at home and sent cards, balloons and other gifts.

They even packed her locker full of perfume, lotion and stuffed animals, a surprise Alana found when she visited her friends at Northside during basketball practice.

Even after she received her diagnosis, Alana said she would continue coming to practice to cheer her friends on and advise them on ways to improve in the game she loves.

“It’s my medicine,” she said.

While Alana said she is touched by the outpouring of love and support from her family and friends, she refuses to accept any pity.

“Most of my friends have been saying, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to school, I’m too sad,’” she said. “But for me to get better, they have to get better.”

Feeling better

For now, Alana is getting better. Since her return from Riley, she has been to church, gone shopping and hung out with her friends on multiple occasions.The only physical effect she currently feels is pain in the spot on her abdomen where the surgeon made an incision for the shunt, but even that is getting better, she said.She is now able to pull herself up from a lying-down position, a feat she could not complete on her own a week ago.

And when her teammates take a break during basketball practice, Alana said she hits the court and gets in a few practice shots to make sure she stays at the top of her game.

“I hate being lazy. I’m not a couch potato,” Alana said. “I want to do stuff; and even when I was sick, I hated my mom having to clean the house, and I was trying to help her.”

Her physical activity will be limited after Thursday’s operation as she rests at the hospital in Indianapolis.

Once her chemotherapy begins, her body’s reaction to the treatment will determine when she can go back to classes and resume her life of physical activity.

While much remains unknown, the Cooks say they are clinging to their faith as they wait for the future of Alana’s health to unfold.

She might be young, but Alana has shown strength beyond her years, her mother said. That, more than anything else, gives her hope for her daughter’s recovery.

“I think that’s why God came to me and … reassured me at Riley that she has the heart of a servant, she is a disciple of Christ and that she’s going to stay right here and continue doing her work,” Cook said. “This is just a minor setback, and we are going to have a positive out of this.”

About Alana

FAMILY: Alana Cook lives on the north side of Columbus with her parents, Holly and Alan, who together describe themselves as the Three Musketeers.

SPORTS: When she’s not on the basketball court — which isn’t all too often — Alana can be found running track, playing softball or managing the football team.

SCHOOL: During the school day, Alana likes to have fun with her friends in class, but she’s also an A/B honor roll student. She’s well liked by her teachers, too, which earned her a Northside Middle School gold pass, giving her special privileges such as being first in line for lunch. But her favorite part about the school day is when she gets to go into her school’s special education classrooms and help those students.

How to help: #COOKIESTRONG

Alana’s nickname has been Cookie since she was a little girl, so her friends and family have adopted the mantra #COOKIESTRONG as the official slogan to show their support.

A family friend of the Cooks set up a GoFundMe account to raise money for the family’s medical expenses, including necessary repairs to their car, which is beginning to show wear and tear from repeated trips between Columbus and Indianapolis. To donate to the Cooks:

  • Visit gofundme.com
  • Search #COOKIESTRONG
  • Click the “Donate Now” button

Family and friends can also send cards, cash or checks to #COOKIESTRONG/Alana Cook, or Holly or Alan Cook at P.O. Box 1932, Columbus, IN 47202.

 

About Alana's condition

Choroid plexus carcinoma is the cancerous form of choroid plexus tumors and is located in a brain ventricle filled with cerebrospinal fluid. Choroid plexus tumors make up about 3 percent of children’s brain tumors, while the carcinoma makes up 10 to 20 percent of all choroid plexus tumors. These tumors can be treated by one or a combination of three ways: surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy.

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Olivia Covington is a reporter for The Republic. She can be reached at ocovington@therepublic.com or 812-379-5712.