NORWAY, Mich. (WJMN) – Hannah Burkland has always had a burning passion for competition.

“I started when I was really young,” said Burklund. “My friends were in sports. My friend, Donna Van Holla, she’s been my friend ever since elementary. She started out with basketball and got me introduced to it. My whole family is just athletes. Then, I started softball. Yeah, I grew up around sports and that’s all we really did.”

That competitive flame only grew larger for Burklund growing up. As a three-sport athlete at Norway High School, she thrived as a leader no matter which playing field.

“She’s a competitor,” said Brian Adams, Burklund’s varsity basketball coach at Norway. “She’s the best competitor I’ve ever coached. She’s a fabulous leader. She’ll lead with words when she has to but most of her leading comes by example of what she does. She does everything the right way. She a coaches dream, really.”

During March of 2022, Burklund was in the midst of her junior softball season. What started as an ordinary day ended with her coming face to face with her toughest opponent yet.

“I noticed a bump on my neck just laying in bed,” said Burklund. “No symptoms, nothing like that. I noticed it and told my mom and she said, ‘We should probably get it checked out.’ We really didn’t think much of it. So I went in to Dickinson [hospital] and they checked it out and they were like, ‘We should probably get a biopsy to see what it is.”

After undergoing a handful tests at multiple locations, including the Children’s Hospital in Milwaukee, Hannah got shocking news, she had thyroid cancer.

“They finally determined that it was cancerous,” said Burklund. “Some lymph nodes around the nodule were cancerous so I had to get surgery in July. It was a 5cm nodule on my thyroid, I got that removed, I got 19 lymph nodes removed and then I had to get radiation treatment in like August.”

“She came to practice and I remember it like it was yesterday,” said Rob Bal, Hannah’s varsity softball coach. “I could see she is walking over with sunglasses on and I’m thinking, ‘Are you okay?’ I could just see that the tears were coming down her face and she’s like, ‘No.’ She tells me, ‘Hey, I have a tumor and it’s cancerous. She gives me a big hug and I think we both had tears. What 17-year-old wouldn’t be scared? You know, I would be scared today if it was me.”

“Hearing that you freak out, you know?,” said Burklund. “It was hard not to but I knew I was going to be okay and I knew everything was going to fine, I’m strong, you know?”

One thing that carried Burklund through this time was her ability to keep calm in the chaos.

“My grandparent they suffered from cancer,” said Burklund. “My mom’s mom and my grandparents now suffer from cancer and they really helped me push through it all. They gave me strength I want to say through all of it.”

After surgery and an isolation period for her radiation treatment, Hannah’s cancer is now in remission. She said she found motivation through her desire to get back to her comfort zone, playing the sports she loves.

“So each sport I have all of my friends pretty much with me and they helped me so much,” said Burklund. “I was just coming back to sports so volleyball it really helped me to get through that little bit. It helped me come back. Basketball, my coaches were just amazing about it. They were really understanding because when you get your thyroid removed, your energy drops, it regulates all of that. So, I was going through different medications and all of that and they were really understanding about all of it and my friends stuck with me through the whole entire way.”

Despite the fluctuating energy levels, Hannah continued to give everything she had on the volleyball and basketball court. With Hannah leading the way, the Knights Girls’ Basketball team was proving to be one of the best in the U.P. But during a game last January against Kingsford, Hannah would once again face another disheartening setback.

“It was a good game,” said Burklund. “I think we might have been up before I went down but it was a good game. I felt it and a lot of people were like, ‘Oh my gosh I think she hit her head, I think she did this, I think she got the wind knocked out of her.’ I was like, ‘No, it’s my knee.’ It was very painful, like I was on the verge of passing out. So, it was really bad. I felt it give out and then a pop and cracking and it was just, it was bad.”

“Well at first I was upset because I thought she fouled the girl and it was going to be her third foul I believe and we were going to have to pull her,” said Adams. “But when I looked back over and she wasn’t getting up, it was just kind of disbelief and just kind of like why? You want no player to get injured ever. Then you look over and it’s her with all she’s been through this summer, you know, I was walking over to her and I said this is the last thing she needs to deal with now. She’s been through enough, but there was never any doubt that she would fight through this too.”

And that’s exactly what Burklund did.

“As soon as it happened I wanted to get to P.T. because I couldn’t even bend my leg,” said Burklund.

While Burklund shifted her focus to the road back to recovery she admits there were times where she questioned why?

“All the time,” said Burklund. “Even my parents said, ‘well, whoever is going to get hurt it’s going to be Hannah. So yeah, that sucked. I was like, ‘Now my knee, what else is going to happen?’

After hours of physical therapy Hannah began to regain motion in her leg opting to hold off on surgery to play in her final softball season as a Knight. Wearing a knee brace, Burklund is able to pitch and even has begun batting as the season has progressed.

“I think it’s just kind of engraved in my mind,” said Burklund. “I don’t know like I think it’s just the love of the game. Basketball, volleyball, softball and I don’t really know I just love doing it so much.”

Burklund said she’s been reluctant to tell her story, not wanting to seek attention, but says she’s hoping her opening up and sharing her journey will help others who are going through hard times.

“When this first happened to me I didn’t want a lot of people knowing just because I didn’t like a lot of attention,” said Burklund. “Talking to people it was like, little kids, little girls are looking up to you and people are hearing your story and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s a lot.’ I’m just glad I can be someone to look up to. I hope younger kids if they’re struggling through an illness or really anybody, they kind of look at my story and they’re inspired and determined that they can get through it because anything is possible if you put your mind to it. That’s what sports helped me through so much. Sports helped me through all of this so I’m really happy.”

Hannah says she plans to attend Grand Valley State next year where she will study Pre-Med.
She also says once she undergoes knee surgery and heals, she plans to join a club softball team or even try to walk on to Grand Valley’s Softball team.