How Honey Bee Kelsea Roussell Became the Girl Who Dominated Cancer

by Sam Perley

Four months ago, it was a normal July day in North Carolina just like any other for Kelsea Roussell and her fiancé Madison Hobbs. The latter had just popped the question down at Myrtle Beach and the two were basking in their post-engagement glow back home while driving around in Kelsea’s new Jeep belting out songs with the windows down. Amidst a chaotic 2020, in the moment, everything was seemingly perfect.

It was then that Kelsea (pronounced like Kelsey) got the phone call that changed her life completely. Having recently gone into the doctor to have a few abnormal lumps in her neck and armpit examined, the doctor circled back with some devastating news.

“I remember him saying, ‘I’m very sorry, but you’ve been diagnosed with Stage 2 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma,’” Kelsea recalled. “Everything around me stood still as I was driving. Tears rolling down my face, pit in my stomach of how I’m going to tell my parents. It was a really tough moment for me.”

“He told us over the phone and she broke down pretty bad,” said Hobbs, who owns a mixed martial arts gym in Concord, NC. “I have a very fix-it personality and luckily, I was able to take a step back and let her process it for 10 minutes. If any two people need to deal with a problem like this, it’s a couple like Kelsea and I. I told her this could have been detrimental to somebody else, but you’re not going to let it be. I know that, together, we are going to make sure it’s not.”

Rarely, if ever, had Kelsea let anything in her life stand in the way of what she wanted to do. And now, cancer was just going to be another obstacle to overcome.

Born into a musical family in Virginia before moving to North Carolina in fifth grade, the now 23-year-old Kelsea was dancing not long after taking her first steps and eventually, began singing in the nearby church choir. She started attending and watching football games and was instantly drawn to the cheerleaders lighting up the crowd on the sidelines.

“She’d say, ‘That’s what I want to do,” recalled her father Chris, who lives in Waxhaw. “She told me she was going to figure out a way to do it professionally. As a father, I wanted her to do what she loves, but wondered if she could make a living out of it. She didn’t care. It was something she loved to do and she was going to figure out a way to do it. She’s always been spunky, very fun, made us laugh, comical, very energetic, had that sass and lit up a room.”

“I was very daring just like any child is,” Kelsea said. “I remember flipping on the trampoline and then getting off and doing backflips in the backyard. My parents immediately started looking for competitive cheer places in North Carolina. I started and fell in love with the flying, the feel of it, the energy. I love cheering and dancing because of the teamwork, comradery and sisterhood of everything. I’ve made so many friendships over the years.”
Along the way, she met Madison through a mutual friend, although the two didn’t start dating right away. Originally from the Charlotte area, Madison moved to Albuquerque after their first encounter, but kept in touch with Kelsea and invited her on a date when he was home for Christmas one year. He eventually returned home following his mother’s own cancer diagnosis and began dating Kelsea for good soon afterwards.

Kelsea would harness her extensive background in dance, gymnastics and competitive cheerleading into a tryout with the Charlotte Checkers’ CheckMates, making the dance team in 2017. Professional hockey served as springboard for Kelsea in preparation to become a Honey Bee and was also where she befriended new teammate Emily Williams, who would also become a Honey Bee, as well. One year later, Emily joined the Honey Bees and Kelsea knew she, too, was ready to take the next step.

Honey Bee auditions – aka “Bee Camp” – usually take place in the summer, although were pushed to the fall this year because of the pandemic. This challenging process runs about a week and features choreographed dance routines, a fitness competition, business interviews and talent night. Training begins months in advance with Honey Bee Head Coach Brandii McCoy and the organization’s event presentation department making the call on the final squad.

Kelsea tried out last year and made the team, fulfilling a life-long dream of becoming a professional cheerleader. “It was a lot of nerves, text messages, phone calls during the process just trying to keep her encouraged,” Chris said. “When she made that phone call, she was hysterical, crying. It was a very proud moment. I’ve saved videos and photos of her growing up doing the cheer thing and just to see the process, she’s the same child. Nothing has changed.”

Although Kelsea’s first season with the Honey Bees was cut short because of COVID-19, it still proved to be everything she could have imagined. “Dancing in Charlotte is so important to me because we have such a light to be an outreach in the community,” she said. “As a little girl watching the Honey Bees, I saw their confidence and how they touched people. When you give somebody a t-shirt or a giveaway, it touches them. When we go out into the community, we’re really able to leave a mark. That’s what inspired me to dance locally here in Charlotte.”

“Her first year on the Honey Bees, I got to watch her grow tremendously,” said Emily. “Coming in, it can be a little intimidating. She developed such a big confidence and knew she was doing a great job. Her personality started to come out and she went from sweet little Kelsea to sweet and sassy Kelsea. It’s helped her developed strength.”

When the cancer diagnosis came, things pivoted swiftly. Kelsea soon began notifying friends, family and teammates to break the horrible news. “That was the worst phone call that I have ever received from my daughter in my 47 years,” Chris said. “I sat in my truck for about 30 minutes gathering my thoughts and prayers. I tried to be positive and told her she can use this as something to dwell on or use it as inspiration. You’ve been through a lot and you can beat this too.”

“I remember calling Coach B and just being so scared and terrified,” said Kelsea. “She was extremely supportive and that spoke volumes to me. A lot of my close friends are also my teammates, so I wanted to make a big Zoom call and talk to everybody. We were going to have to get through it together. It wasn’t just going to be hard for me or Coach B, but it was going to be hard for everybody because we all love each other.”

Hodgkin’s lymphoma is a rare cancer of the lymphatic system and is most commonly found amongst people in their early 20’s, according to the American Cancer Society. This particular disease is less prevalent than non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, although is more treatable and has a higher survival rate. Symptoms include persistent fatigue, fever, night sweats, unexplained weight loss and severe itchiness.

Chemotherapy is usually administered to kill the cancer-causing cells, but it can also take healthy cells along with it and leave a trail of destruction in its path. Additional fatigue, nausea, vomiting and hair loss are all common side effects, with the latter serving as a particular tough pill to swallow for Kelsea.

“Especially for a female having to shave your head, that can be devastating,” said Madison, who along with a number of other fighters at his gym, shaved his head in a sign of solidarity for Kelsea. “You may be bald, but you’re still going after it. She’s had countless nights crying about it and I just kept trying to put a positive spin on it. This is going to be motivational for anybody going through this or something similar.”

Emily quickly started a fundraiser for Kelsea to help subsidize the costs of her medical expenses. “No 23-year-old should ever have to go through this. She had just gotten engaged and now she had to battle this awful disease. I knew I needed to do something and that’s when I first designed a t-shirt and started a fundraiser for her called Kelsea’s Fight Club. We raised over $4,000, which was more than double our goal. The love that she showed us and the love we show her is just incredible.”

Amidst the upheaval was the looming decision for Kelsea of whether or not to try out for the Honey Bees for a second season (all dancers need to re-tryout each summer regardless if they were on the team the year before). Should she go for it again knowing the exhaustive toll the treatments would take on her body? Would she even be allowed to participate considering she might have to stop and rest every now and then during auditions?

“Coach B told me I needed to tryout because it would be good for me,” Kelsea said. “My favorite quote from her that will always stick with me is, ‘Sometimes we need dance more than it needs us.’ Honestly, that’s so true. Madison told me I have a platform to inspire many people and that it’d be amazing to tryout again for all the little girls or grown women in the community who are having a hard time.”

“She was a little bit concerned about the Honey Bees being okay with it and being tired,” added Madison. “I told her she needed to try out because she could be a role model for anybody who has ever had a dream and who has cancer. Think about all the kids that have it. This is going to be motivational for anybody going through this or something similar.”

And tryout she did, all while juggling treatments, exhaustion and uncertainty. Bee Camp’s talent night ended up falling on the same date Kelsea was scheduled to receive another grueling round of chemotherapy earlier in the day.

“The chemo treatment I went to [with her], I was astounded because she had talent night that night,” said Chris. “I watched for six hours as they pumped chemicals into her body, watching her fade in and out. When she left, she was nauseous and tired. I wish I could take this away from her, but I don’t know if I could have done it as well as she’s done it. She has her days, but she’s never called me and said she couldn’t get through it. It’s always been, ‘I’m good,’ and that positive attitude.”

“Coach B told me to take breaks and get rest when I needed to, but I’m that girl that does not take breaks,” Kelsea stated. “I remember really pushing myself and even crying a couple times during workouts, which my teammates were there for me. It really showed my dedication to the Honey Bees. It’s something I love and worked for. Coach B told me I could opt out of talent night, but I wanted to be like everybody else and not sit out.”

“Watching Kelsea through Bee Camp was amazing,” added Emily. “She just has so much strength and power. I checked on her every day and told her they’d understand if you can’t go today. But she wanted to be there every day, she wanted to be present. On talent night, I begged her to sit it out, but she told me, ‘Emily, I’m not doing that. That’s not my personality. I’m going to do it. I have to do it. I’m not letting this cancer take over my life.’”

Kelsea’s performance that night consisted of a complex, physically taxing routine in front of the judges and other dancers. Proving once again that nothing would prevent her from pursuing her passion, she closed out her empowering showcase by triumphantly pulling off her blond wig, exposing a shaved head littered with glued-on rhinestones for everyone to see.

“I didn’t expect to get emotional, but I broke down hearing everybody scream for me and the judges clapping,” she said. “It really meant a lot to me because it was really hard to get through that day. To know the judges, my teammates and coaches were there to lift me up and cheer me on was an amazing feeling. It means the world to me that Coach B would bring me on again this season with everything that I’ve been going through. To be able to cheer again was a blessing.”

“She wanted to make a statement,” said Emily. “She didn’t want to be the girl that has cancer, but the girl who dominated cancer. She dominated auditioning while going through chemo. The judges weren’t giving her any pity. There were a lot of talented girls there and she proved she deserved to be there as much as anybody else.”

Throughout Madison’s gym – which Kelsea frequents more and more often to train ever since she started dabbling in MMA – a fitting phrase is plastered on the walls and other surfaces.

“It’s not the blowing of the wind, but the set of the sail,” explained Madison. “That works well with her case. The same wind blows on everybody and sometimes it’s a harsher wind in her case. The only person that can change that is the person setting the sail. I told her and she really liked it. It’s not about what happening to you, but how you react to it.”

Kelsea had her sixth and final treatment on Nov. 3 and is currently in remission, although continuous monitoring will remain part of her daily life for the immediate future. But even in these last few months since she was first diagnosed, the empowerment and strength Kelsea has displayed will reach much farther and inspire far more than anybody could have imagined.

“My advice for anybody would be to listen to your body. If it’s doing something weird, feeling extremely tired or you have lumps that come up, go get it checked. Your body is telling you something. My advice for anybody going through this is just keep fighting. For the people going through it with them, support them in every way that you can because it really does mean more to them then they’d ever be able to express.”

She added, “It hasn’t been an easy road. I always try to see the positive in everything. You can beat yourself down, cry and look at the negative. Seeing the positive has helped me get through it. I know I’m going through this for a reason and it’s better me than anything else. I have an outreach with this to inspire others. I don’t want people to pity or feel bad for me.”

It’s worth reiterating what Emily said – this story isn’t about Kelsea being just another girl who had cancer. It’s about girl that stood up to cancer, faced it head on with her trademark competitive spirit and in the end, found a way to come out on top.


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