BILLINGS -- It was only appropriate on a recent sunny afternoon that the story within the story for Billings West High's softball girls centered on -- sunscreen.
"Sophomore year in the fall, I found out that I had Stage 2 skin cancer," Bears infielder Emma Balsam recounted to MTN Sports before practice at West's home field. "Big shock to everybody because we were like, 'OK, skin cancer, that's like an 'old people' cancer. What the heck? I'm 16 years old, this is ridiculous.'"
Yet there it was: aggressive melanoma skin cancer trying to drain the life out of a high school sophomore. She and her family wouldn't have any of it, grinding through both fear and surgery.
"This area here, where there's kind of a big spot," Balsam explained, pointing to a golf ball-sized scar on her left temple, "... that's where it first was removed."
Balsam passed a clean bill of health and her Bears earned a third-place trophy at state that season.
But a couple months later, she said she discovered "a bump right here on my neck, actually. My cancer had actually spread to my lymph nodes which was a big, big bummer because we were like, 'OK, we just overcame this. Here we go again.'"
Doctors couldn't remove the lymph nodes in Billings, so their next closest option was on the West Coast.
"That was definitely really scary. Took a trip to Seattle with my family, and my best friend Halle (Spring) who I get to play with (as a teammate)," Balsam said.
As if one scar on the left side of her head wasn't enough, she now points out a second surrounding her left ear.
"Everything that goes down and around my ear right here, that's from the second time when I went to Seattle to have my lymph nodes removed," she said.
Bears head coach Preston Sanders remembers the day Balsam approached him in tears, fearing not just cancer's unknown, but the thought of losing the sport she loves most. He could relate, having gone through a similar skin cancer scare behind one of his shoulders. His advice to her?
"You've always got to look for the best things out there. Don't sit there and dwell on all the negative stuff," Sanders told MTN Sports. "You get through it. You do what you can, and you get through it."
"(It's) pretty awesome, because he always talks me down, always tells me everything is going to be OK," Balsam said.
To that point, the Bears have enjoyed a few extra team gatherings, including ice cream runs. Alison Eldridge goes way back with Balsam, long before the duo's softball days when they played soccer together.
"It was really sad to hear about her," Eldridge said recalling the news. "I've been friends with Emma since kindergarten and we've known each other our whole lives."
Following Balsam's second surgery, she endured a full year of cancer treatment, plus the side effects that tag along with it.
"It took all my energy away, really fluctuated my hormones, and I've had a lot of issues with my thyroid lately," she said.
Part of that recovery leaves her feeling like a regular at the hospital where Balsam shows up for CT scans every six months. At first, the scans were every three. Her most recent was just a few weeks ago and didn't reveal good news.
"It turns out there was actually a lymph node that had grown in size since the last time, which was really scary," she said. "We were like, 'Two times already, we cannot go through this a third time.' I was really scared and really frustrated, like, this is really ridiculous."
Sure enough, the bombshell once again landed in-season.
"It was especially stressful finding out during softball season because I was like, I don't want to lose my senior season. I don't want to have to worry about that," she said.
However, just recently doctors revealed long overdue positive news to Balsam's family: The latest test result was a false alarm. No abnormal lymph node.
Through it all, she admits feeling like she knows enough about melanoma to teach a class.
"I'm definitely the sunscreen Nazi with all my friends," she said with a nod and a laugh. "Especially out here on the softball field because it's always sunny and you always want to layer up."
Balsam has always been intrigued by a medical career. After recently spending so much of her life so close to it, she's leaning toward a nursing degree at MSU Billings because, she said, those helping her through treatment "have all been so selfless."
After beating Belgrade for the divisional crown last week, top-seeded West is scheduled to face Helena High in Thursday's state tournament opener at 4 p.m.
The forecast in Kalispell? Partly sunny and 70 degrees. You know who's in charge of sunscreen.