Battling on and off the court

Senior Darian Winkelbauer perseveres after thyroid cancer diagnosis in sophmore year


Olivia Torrez, In-Depth Editor

The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck that makes hormones in your body. It’s in control of how fast you burn calories and how fast your heart beats. Senior Darian Winkelbauer’s thyroid is cancerous.

After being diagnosed in her sophomore year, she’s undergone two surgeries and radiation therapy to kill off the cancerous cells. Winkelbauer has been playing basketball since she was in first grade and is now enjoying her senior year as a combo guard on the varsity girls basketball team. 

“My first surgery was to get rid of my thyroid– my whole thyroid– because one side had cancer in it. [The second surgery], they had found lymph nodes that were cancerous and could affect me, so they got that out a year or two later and now they’re just monitoring it,” Winkelbauer said.

Winkelbauer has never let her cancer get in the way of playing– only stopping for a few weeks of recovery after her surgeries. 

“[When I found out] I started crying. I prayed that I wouldn’t get cancer because there’s a recent history in my family with thyroid cancer, and when I found out I just started crying,” Winkelbauer said.

Her day-to-day routine consists of waking up early, taking medicine, going back to sleep (after taking the medicine, she can’t eat for an hour because the thyroid hormone the medicine provides won’t be absorbed correctly on a full stomach), getting up again for breakfast, and continuing her normal routine.

“I was shocked and concerned [when I found out about the diagnosis], but I tried to remain strong for Darian,” Carolyn Winkelbauer said.

Winkelbauer’s mom, Carolyn Winkelbauer, has been by her side through thick and thin, helping the family focus on the positives and never take anything for granted.

“It just goes to show how tough of a player and how tough of a kid she is– to deal with not only the grind of a basketball season but to do so while battling a formidable opponent in cancer, ” Girls’ Basketball Coach Chris Paulson said.

Paulson has been the girls’ basketball coach for two years. Paulson’s known Winkelbauer since she joined the team last summer in her junior year after transferring from Omaha Burke, and he only found out about her diagnosis after the season was over.

“The team was very supportive. I think we have such a good family atmosphere and community within our program. I think everybody just wanted to make sure she was healthy and see her through this,” Paulson said.

Teammate Kayla Preston is a junior on the team who’s known Winkelbauer since middle school. Having found out about Winkelbauer’s cancer beforehand has just served to strengthen their bond.

“If anything [finding out about the diagnosis] has made us stronger. It’s just made [the team] bond more together,” Preston said.

Winkelbauer has been training in the offseason amidst her checkups and therapy. After being given the green light, she’s ready to give it her all.

“I love watching her play basketball. She’s always loved playing and is super competitive. [Darian’s become] a warrior! She is one of the strongest and bravest young ladies I know,” C. Winkelbauer said.

With basketball season having started up Nov. 15, Winkelbauer plans to have fun, enjoy every second of her senior year, and make it to state are already in full swing.

“I’m determined to make it far in state since last year we made it and lost the first round against the state champions. I plan to keep fighting and not let anything get to me emotionally,” Winkelbauer said.

Winkelbauer will continue to play and persevere in college, having committed to Webster University in St. Louis. She is determined to not let anyone or anything get in her way, including (but not limited to) a butterfly-shaped gland in the side of her neck.