Softball: Hackenbracht’s childhood battle with cancer couldn’t stop current success

The Lantern
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Ohio State then-sophomore catcher Sam Hackenbracht (24) catches behind the diamond during the Ohio State-Michigan game April 9. Ohio State lost 7-0. Credit: Christian Harsa | Special Projects Director

Sam Hackenbracht is a name that frequently appears when it comes to Big Ten softball. As a sophomore, the Ohio native led the Buckeyes with 12 home runs, second-most in the conference, and was selected Second Team All-Big Ten in 2021.

These honors did not come easy for Hackenbracht and, more importantly, could be considered near to impossible to her parents when she was a child.

At around 18 months old, Hackenbracht began to get really sick. At just 2 years old, Sam was diagnosed with a very rare form of stage four germ cell cancer. Both her parents, Dan and Heather Hackenbracht, became extremely worried when they noticed a lump on their daughter’s stomach, so her dad took her straight to the emergency room.

“They just sent him home and said that it was just a fever and I was fine, without running tests on me. But my dad knew something was wrong. I was super sick at home, I stopped eating and I just wasn’t normal,” Sam Hackenbracht said.

Sam Hackenbracht said she later stopped eating and was “super sick” at home. She said her parents were sent to Texas Children’s Hospital and met with an oncologist.

They received results back from medical scans the same day they arrived at the hospital, and at that point they were told they were going to be there until she started treatment and got better. Doctors could tell from her blood work that she had some type of cancer, which was devastating for Dan and Heather Hackenbracht to hear.

The next step for Sam was to find out what type of cancer she had. The next day she needed to have a biopsy, which required surgery, Heather Hackenbracht said. Results of her prognosis and what stage she was at came a few days later.

“Once they gave it to me, I wasn’t happy with it,” Heather Hackenbracht said. “I think I realized that no matter what they told me I wasn’t going to be happy.”

The rest of Sam’s family were extremely surprised when they found out she had cancer — and they jumped into action. Both Dan Hackenbracht’s father and sister came down from Ohio to help Sam and her parents, who lived in Texas at the time. Heather Hackenbracht’s parents made multiple trips to Houston to help in any way they could, she said.

“That year remained the one and only Christmas we didn’t spend with our family because her diagnosis was around the holidays. I just can’t thank people enough who helped us and took care of things locally,” Heather Hackenbracht said. “We didn’t live in our house anymore; we lived at the hospital.”

Sam began chemotherapy as soon as her results came back from the biopsy. She said the goal was to shrink down the tumor on her liver until it was small enough to be removed.

Prior to that, however, the tumor metastasized and spread to her lungs and other parts of her body. Once the tumor was deemed shrunk enough, the surgeons tried to remove a large amount of cancer. That was the first major surgery Sam had out of three, including the biopsy.

Sam’s family was continuously in and out of the hospital for the next few years until she was put into remission at the age of 4.

As she grew up, Sam Hackenbracht said she wanted to learn more about her diagnosis since she remembered very little as an infant. She said she started to ask questions about the scars she had on her body when she was a teenager and became very curious about what happened to her.

“I don’t think she understood how sick she was and how blessed we are until we told her,” Heather Hackenbracht said. “She just took it in and was generally surprised by that and in some regard it’s a blessing for her that she doesn’t remember. She has no memories of the trauma she had and how sick she was.”

Over time, Sam Hackenbracht said she was able to understand what happened to her as a child, and by her senior year of high school realized that her struggles as an infant led to many side effects as she got older. Once again, she had to go to the doctor to figure out what was wrong. There she was told that these long-term side effects came from the strong chemotherapy drug she took for several years.

“I have high blood pressure and something called Raynaud’s — so that’s where I lose circulation in my fingers and my toes and they turn purple and black. I just had a whole bunch of issues in my senior year,” Sam Hackenbracht said.

Sam Hackenbracht wasn’t able to have the senior year she planned. Due to the countless doctor appointments, she missed many of her softball games and practices.

This was hard for not only her, but her father as well, who she said helped her become the softball player she is.

“My dad was always super hard on me, and I knew that if he was erring on the side of caution that it was for a reason,” Sam Hackenbracht said. “He would tell me that this comes first and that it’s OK and it is what it is.”

Sam Hackenbracht said she’s eager to start her junior season this coming spring. With all her childhood experiences behind her, she can now be the person she was destined to be.

“I hope she feels grateful to be alive and there’s this grand plan for her to do something because we are just incredibly fortunate,” Heather Hackenbracht said.

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