As if 2020 wasn’t bad enough already, it devolved into a “crazy, scratchy mess” for Catherine “Cat” Almeida this fall.
The college sophomore from Clifton Park likes to write, and switched her studies from physical therapy to journalism shortly after the start of her freshman year at Quinnipiac University.
So as long as she can do that, she’ll always have a voice.
Singing, however, is not to be taken for granted.
The 6-foot-5 former basketball star at Shenendehowa had been looking forward to getting more playing time with the Bobcats this season, after having done extra work and improving her diet in the offseason while, like everyone, accounting for the COVID-19 pandemic in her daily routine.
Then, they told her she had cancer.
It’s emblematic of 2020 that, just when you think it can’t get worse, it does, and the last straw for Almeida dropped when she couldn’t sing anymore. She was in the car with some friends a few weeks ago, post-surgery for thyroid cancer, and a song came on.
“I sounded absolutely horrible,” she said with a laugh over the phone on Monday morning. “Of course, I try to be funny — ‘Hahahaha, it’s so horrible’ — but I was actually very sad. It’s embarrassing.”
Almeida, a Daily Gazette all-area first-teamer as a senior at Shenendehowa in 2019, has had her sophomore season at Quinnipiac interrupted by thyroid cancer and is still recovering, but she’s looking forward to rejoining the team in a few weeks. Like with pretty much everything else, of course, 2020 will spill over into 2021, and she’ll have to go back in for more surgery in about five months. But heading through the holiday season, she’s philosophical about the hand she’s been dealt and grateful for the opportunity to get back on the court soon.
“It’s definitely added something to leaving 2020, even though it has to continue to 2021,” she said. “My year actually was not horrible leading up to this. Obviously, 2020 has been horrible for so many reasons for so many people. But, for me, it’s a bummer that the [end of the] season got canceled last spring. But this is definitely my 2020 thing.”
“It’s been that kind of year,” said Joe Murphy, her coach at Shenendehowa. “A lot of people I know have gone through difficult times just because of COVID, and on top of it getting random health stuff. People have had a bad year, in general, and Cat is a microcosm of it.”
For her team at Quinnipiac, not having Almeida around has been another challenge to try to overcome.
“Missing her face, missing her being around, she’s just got such a great personality,” Quinnipiac coach Tricia Fabbri said. “A funny kid. Just a real maturity about her who has a self-deprecating sense of humor about herself and handles anything that’s as difficult as this with humor and maturity.
“You’re stunned. It has just been kind of upside down this whole year, right? You’re in disbelief, but this is the year that everything has been so upside-down that it almost fits with anything that can go wrong has gone wrong, daily. It kind of made sense, if that makes sense.”
As a high school senior, Almeida helped Shenendehowa win a Section II Class AA championship. She didn’t play much as a freshman at Quinnipiac, appearing in 15 of 29 games, including what turned out to be the season finale, a victory over Canisius on March 7, after which the MAAC tournament was canceled because of the pandemic.
Almeida and her former Shen teammate and classmate, Jessica Wagoner, now playing at Caldwell University, worked out just about every day over the summer in the garage of Almeida’s parents, Trish and Mauricio, the latter of whom played basketball for The College of Saint Rose.
Cat Almeida also cut down on the snacks and believed she was primed to make a more substantial contribution to the Bobcats this season.
Fabbri was looking forward to that, too, since Almeida could present a matchup problem for opposing teams as a 6-foot-5 player with 3-point range who can also be a presence around the rim at both ends of the floor, as Quinnipiac plays more zone defense this season.
“I will not claim to have the diet most D-I athletes have, to be honest,” Almeida said. “I don’t really restrict myself. But last year, being a freshman, I was pretty anxious and it was really tough the whole year. I just snacked a lot. This year and this summer, I just tried to not do that, and I think that helped and made me faster when I was working out.”
She never got the chance to find out if all that work would pay off.
While out to dinner with a friend and her family this fall, Almeida noticed a lump on her throat.
They got it checked out, and an Oct. 19 biopsy determined that the 1.5-centimeter lump on her thyroid was cancerous.
Almeida was on campus for the fall semester, distraught over having just lost a school-issued SD card she needed for her journalism classes when her mom called. The little memory card quickly became a distant memory.
“I was already crying about this stupid little piece of equipment that I lost, and she was like, ‘Yeah, so the biopsy came back abnormal, and they’re not completely sure, but they think it’s cancer.’ So, of course, I freaked out,” Almeida said. “But it was maybe only two minutes that I actually freaked out. And then I was like, ‘So, does this mean I have to come home? And just leave the team and everything?’ I was thinking about practice the next day.”
“My daughter just graduated as a fully certified, licensed physician’s assistant, and she told me that out of any type of diagnosis to get, that’s the one you want to get, because it’s treatable and full recovery. So that was the best news to hear out of bad news,” Fabbri said. “But it stinks, right?”
“I told her if there was someone that could get through this, it’s you,” Murphy said. “She’s just a tough kid, she knows how to handle herself with adversity in every situation, and has a great, great family, too.
“When I heard about it and first called her, I said, ‘Hey, Cat, what’s up?’, and she said, ‘Nothin’.’ She takes it in stride, and for her to be out and open about it, doing an interview with the people from Quinnipiac and posting it [on YouTube via ESPN+], that’s the way she attacks things. It did break my heart when I heard the news, though.”
It struck an extra chord for Murphy since his 11-year-old son, Vincent, is a leukemia survivor in good health who was diagnosed when he was 3.
“That’s the first thing I said to her mom, ‘I know what you’re going through,'” Murphy said. “It’s tough, because you’re all over the place at times. You don’t know what to think, what to read, what not to read. You don’t want to go down that rabbit hole.”
Speaking of chords, the lump was removed, but during the Nov. 18 operation, which took two hours, a nerve on a vocal cord stopped responding, Almeida said, so the doctors called it a day.
They did find some smaller lumps on the other side of her thyroid and will go back in to take those out this spring.
When that time comes, Almeida will be ready for Round 2 and whatever that will entail.
“When I went to the surgery, I wasn’t even nervous,” she said. “I don’t know. I don’t really get nervous about that kind of stuff. I get anxious doing other basic things, like just calling the doctor to make an appointment.
“That makes me more nervous than going to get cancer removed,” she said, laughing. “I get scared to order pizza. To get surgery, I’m fine.”
Quinnipiac is off to a 3-3 start, with three narrow losses, and Almeida keeps close tabs on the team’s progress, swapping notes via text message with Fabbri’s son, who is one of the team managers, during quarter breaks.
The year 2020 took Cat Almeida’s voice away, then started to give it back.
No matter what, she’s determined to take her game back.
“It’s not going to take much,” Murphy said. “Her work ethic is tremendous. When she was at Shen, there were times when I had to sit her down, physically, and say, ‘Hey, you need to sit down and not practice,’ because she was trying to gut it out when she was hurt.”
“Here and there, I’d think about it and kind of get upset,” Almeida said. “I’d be sitting at the doctor’s and sort of watching it from outside my body, like, what the heck is happening? This is crazy. But usually I’m completely fine, and people are surprised by that. I joke about it, because I think it’s kind of insane.
“Some people are like, ‘Oh, I wanted to text you this joke about it, but I was afraid you’d get offended.’ Oh, my gosh, no. It’s more annoying, having to do this and watch other people play the games while I’m at the doctor’s.
“But it’s not horrible.”