The past year has been filled with plenty of highs and lows for Alana Cook.
The biggest lows have come from the chemotherapy to eradicate a brain tumor.
The biggest highs have resulted from Cook’s return to school and the basketball court.
The biggest high, though, came Oct. 26 when Cook was surprised with an “honorary letter of intent” by the Notre Dame women’s basketball team.
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Notre Dame is the school where former Columbus North standout Ali Patberg plays basketball and was ranked as the No. 1-ranked team in the country in the preseason. Patberg and Cook share a love for the game.
Patberg and Cook became close friends two years ago when Cook was playing for Patberg’s father Ron’s Columbus Comets travel team. Cook was a rising star, and like Ali Patberg, a gym rat.
That winter, they attended each others’ games. Patberg led North to the Class 4A state championship and was named Indiana Miss Basketball and a McDonald’s All-American.
About a week-and-a-half after Cook was diagnosed with the tumor last fall, Patberg tore her ACL in practice at Notre Dame. Each became more concerned about the other than themselves.
“I remember thinking how upset I was, and my mom said to put it in perspective,” Patberg said. “Obviously, I have not gone through anything she’s gone through, but we can relate to each other. We’re both trying to get back to playing basketball, and we have to have patience and we love the game so much.”
Patberg said she talks to Alana a couple times a week — partly about basketball, but also life in general. Alana said all the Irish players gave her their phone numbers before she left to return to Columbus.
Joining the Irish
This summer, when Notre Dame director of basketball operations Katie Capps asked the team if they had any outreach requests, Patberg talked to her about Cook. The organization Friends of Jaclyn, which already had adopted Cook, then contacted Notre Dame.Friends of Jaclyn was founded after Jaclyn Murphy was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The Friends of Jaclyn Foundation’s mission is to improve the quality of life for children battling pediatric brain tumors and other childhood cancers and to raise awareness through its Adopt-A-Child, Safe on the Sidelines and Guardian Angel Programs.
They do that by pairing an afflicted child and their siblings with local high school and college sports teams, campus clubs and arts programs in their community. So far, Friends of Jaclyn has helped more than 700 kids.
But when Patberg invited Cook to one of Patberg’s Notre Dame women’s basketball practices, Cook had no idea what she was to experience.
But after watching Patberg and the Fighting Irish in the team’s first official practice of the season on Oct. 26, Patberg took Cook on a tour. When they got to the locker room, the entire squad surprised Cook with the “honorary letter of intent” to be a part of the team.
“I didn’t know what was going on at first,” Cook said. “Then, when we went in the locker room, it was like ‘Whoa, this is awesome.’”
The letter of intent allows Cook, who turned 14 on Friday, to join the Irish for home games and other events as her schedule allows.
Cook’s parents, Alan and Holly Cook, were in on the surprise. So was Laney Moore, a friend and teammate on the Northside eighth-grade squad who accompanied the Cooks to South Bend.
“I thought it was really moving to see that whole thing,” Moore said. “All the players were really motivational and nice to her.”
Jaclyn’s father, Denis Murphy, talked to the Notre Dame team about Friends of Jaclyn, and Holly Cook told them about Alana’s journey.
Holly Cook said Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw told the team how blessed they are to lace up their shoes.
A trying year
Alana Cook’s ordeal began when she was hit by a dodgeball at Sky Zone on fall break in October 2015.Diagnosed with a concussion, Cook was treated for a week-and-a-half by a pediatrician, but she only became worse. She was so ill she couldn’t be out of bed, so her parents took her to Riley Hospital for Children in Indianapolis.
At Riley, Cook underwent a five-hour MRI on Oct. 22, 2015, and a CT scan showed some type of mass. Doctors put a ventriculoperitoneal shunt in the back of her head to treat hydrocephalus. The condition occurs when excess cerebrospinal fluid (CSF) collects in the brain’s ventricles.
Holly Cook said at that point, she was suffering and fighting for her life because of the hydrocephalus. Doctors think when the dodgeball hit her in the back of the head, it shifted the tumor and caused the fluid to build in her head.
Doctors performed surgery Nov. 4 to remove the tumor. After that, Alana spent most of the winter undergoing radiation therapy at the Chicago Proton Center, then went through five rounds of chemotherapy at Riley in the spring.
On July 7, she was pronounced cancer free.
“This is such a rare type of tumor, there was no clinical type of study that showed anything,” Holly Cook said. “We’re just hoping and praying that removing it and radiating it, it won’t come back.”
Return to the court
After about 10 months away from basketball, Alana returned to the Comets this summer. She was able to play only in short spurts.Alana’s final Comets game was Saturday.
“You can tell her stamina and her endurance is going to take work,” Holly Cook said. “Like (Comets and North coach) Pat McKee said, it’s almost like being bedridden for six months and not doing much. She can’t compare herself to others.”
Alana also has begun her middle school season with Northside. The Spartans are off to a 2-0 start.
In the first game against Seymour, Alana wasn’t her old self. She missed both of her shots and committed a couple of turnovers.
“Alana has been beating herself up after that game,” Holly Cook said. “I told her doubting herself and being down on herself is taking two steps back. We have to emphasize things and make sure she’s not hard on herself.”
But Thursday’s game against St. Peter’s went much better for Alana. Although she played only a couple of minutes in each half, she scored a basket on her only second-half shot.
As a result, Alana was much happier after that game than the first one.
“It’s really hard to get back to where I am now from where I was before I got sick, but I know I can do it,” she said. “It’s hard to slow down because I know how I was before. It’s hard to know that I have to do what’s best for me and not what’s best for basketball.”
Her mother agreed.
“She loves the game, and she had to work hard,” Holly Cook said. “Things came naturally before she got sick. She will have to ask a coach several times before they run a play. To watch her peers and the girls that she’s played with forever, and to watch this happen, it’s going to take a lot of work and patience. It’s just a work in progress.”
When the Cooks were in Chicago and at Riley last winter and spring, Alana had a homeschool teacher. Since returning to Northside this year, she has experienced some memory troubles.Holly Cook said it will take time for Alana to regain that memory.
“My memory is not very good, but that’s OK,” Alana said. “We can fix that.”
Alana’s hair is growing back, although she has 6-by-6-inch craniotomy in back of her head. But that isn’t stopping her from pursuing her dreams.
At the Notre Dame practice she attended, she pictured herself playing college basketball.
“I was like ‘I want to do this one day. I hope this is me one day,’” she said. “It’s amazing. I look back a year ago, I was in a hospital bed, and now I’m right here today.”
Name: Alana Cook
School: Northside Middle School
Family: Parents Alan and Holly Cook
Of note: Dean O’Neal of coachesaid.com and a neighbor of the Cooks helped set up Alana’s visit to Notre Dame and filmed the visit for an upcoming documentary