MOUNT ZION — When Mount Zion girls basketball player Denver Anderson is on the basketball court, there are two constants — her mother Becky Clayton Anderson and 5-year-old sister Shoni Anderson cheering her on from the stands.
Through Denver's AAU games with the Indiana Elite Havoc Gold 16U team or junior high basketball, Shoni was her biggest fan. But for Denver's freshman year with the Braves, when she stood out as an Apollo Conference first-team selection, her sister wasn't able to attend games. Shoni has battled leukemia since her diagnosis in early February.
"Every time I was playing she was cheering me on. It was like missing a piece of everything with her not being there and not being able to cheer," Denver said. "Whenever I was her age, I acted the same way that she does now. We look the exact same, too."
Shoni has been a fixture at Mount Zion sporting events, with her first one coming just a few days after her birth.
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"I was coaching junior high basketball when I was pregnant with Shoni and so I took a day off and had her and I was back in the gym two days later with her along with me," Becky said. "She has literally grown up in the gym and so it has been hard for her to be left behind this season."
Shoni had been suffering from leg pain that would come and go in the summer 2019 but it intensified over time.
"With Shoni, we assumed the pain she was having was growing pains and we dismissed it for a while. In 2020, it kept getting worse and the pain more frequent," Becky said. "It had moved from her leg to her arm and wrist."
A trip to the emergency room following a particular painful episode brought the diagnosis of leukemia and an answer for Becky about what had brought so much suffering for many months.
"When they told me that she had leukemia, it took a while for it to sink in. I think at first I felt like I was going to pass out and start crying. I was in shock and I looked over at my five year old with her big brown eyes asking me 'What's wrong mommy?,'" she said. "I remember feeling that at some point I was relieved, not because my daughter had cancer, but because we finally had some answers. It seemed like we had been waiting so long just to know what was going wrong with her."
In the nearly four months since her diagnosis, Shoni has been doing chemotherapy treatments at HSHS St. John's Children's Hospital in Springfield. The whole family of seven kids — including Shoni's older sister Lainie Wolter, who plays basketball for North Central College — have pitched in to help in any way they can.
"Sometimes it is pretty upsetting to see how much she has to go to the hospital, but she is handling it very well," Denver said. "We are all getting kind of used to it although it is a difficult thing to get used to. We are starting to adapt to it to know what to do every time."
The community has responded as well. Sliderz Bar and Grill, the Odd Fellows Lodge and 217 ALZ Backyard Whiffle Ball held a whiffle ball tournament for Shoni that raised $27,000. On June 2, Passion Community Church will hold a blood drive in Shoni’s honor from noon to 6 p.m.
“I’m excited to get people to sign up and I hope Shoni will be feeling well enough to go out there with me,” Becky said. “The amount of support we have had has been at times overwhelming. I’m a faith-filled person and I think the strength that I have and the positivity that I’m able to keep is due to the people that are praying for us. If you don't have that faith, I don’t know how people make it through experiences like this. I know we couldn’t be making it on our own."
Through the worrying and concern for Shoni's recovery, Becky, who led Sullivan to a Class 1A state girls basketball championship in 1990-91, finds her duties as an assistant coach for Denver's AAU team can free her mind for a short time.
"It has been hard leaving her with the separation anxiety, but it has been good to get away and just be around friends. I love basketball so much, it is hardly ever work," Becky said. "They is a talented group of girls and we have fun. They are all freshmen and we are challenging this group of talented girls by playing up to 16U this season."
Shoni will continue with her chemotherapy treatments into the summer and will spend more time in the hospital as her test numbers rise and fall. In battling leukemia, the recovery from chemotherapy can be an incredible challenge.
"Going through this is hard when they are little and you can't explain everything to them. Cancer is not going to kill Shoni and I'm 100% certain of that. I'm not worried about leukemia anymore," Becky said. "I'm worried about this ridiculously hard road of treatment. It is a roller coaster. I can't think of another way to explain it."
For Denver, the strength her little sister has shown through her ordeal has been an inspiration.
"I was really upset about it that she is only five years old and I don't think that she deserves to be going through this at such a young age," Denver said. "Watching how brave she is in taking on her diagnosis is super inspiring for me — knowing how young she is and how brave she is being. She has always been really strong and she has been strong this whole time.
"She is still the same Shoni that she was before and she is handling it better than any of us could."
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Contact Matthew Flaten at (217) 421-6968. Follow him on Twitter: @MattFlaten