“I sometimes compare how I felt when I heard that I was in remission to being in love and hearing those 3 little words for the first time. Except instead of ‘I love you,’ it’s ‘We got it.” And then my whole life changed and everything was beautiful and perfect and there’s really just no way to describe how I felt.”
Alyssa McCoy woke up bursting with excitement. It was December 16, 2006 — her 13th birthday — and she couldn’t wait to celebrate the start of her teenage years with her girlfriends, who were coming over for a sleepover later that evening. But as she was putting her hair up in front of the mirror that morning, she felt a strange lump between the size of a golf ball and a baseball on the side of her neck.
“Moooom! There’s this weird thing. Can you come look at it?” Alyssa called. Her mom walked into Alyssa’s room and her face went pale. She ordered Alyssa to immediately get into the car and cancel her party — they were going to urgent care.
“It didn't occur to me that I might actually be dying,” Alyssa said. “If we had postponed the doctor visit, who knows what could have happened. As a grown-up, I'm so grateful that my mom canceled the party, but then, as a teenager, I was so mad and upset.”
At the first doctor’s office, Alyssa took a blood test and answered innumerable questions. Unsatisfied with the service, Alyssa’s mom took Alyssa to a second hospital, where Alyssa received x-rays and contrast scans. The doctors implied that they were looking for cancer, but said they needed more tests to confirm.
The day after Christmas, Alyssa went in for her first surgery: a bone marrow extraction. The day after New Years, Alyssa got a biopsy and a few days after that, she received her diagnosis: stage 2A Hodgkin's lymphoma — a type of blood cancer that initiates in the lymphatic system and has about a 90 percent survival rate when found in its early stages (stage 1 or 2). She had 4 tumors: one on the left side of her neck, one right beneath her right collarbone, one in the center of her sternum, and one underneath her left armpit.
“My family was crying and I wasn’t really understanding why [my cancer] was such a big deal,” Alyssa said. “I didn't fully grasp what was happening.”
In the middle of January, Alyssa had her third surgery to get a picc line (a long, thin catheter tube) inserted into her arm that would be used to deliver chemo treatments into her body.
She then began 12 weeks of chemotherapy, which often left her nauseas and with “chemo brain” — a mental cloudiness characterized by short-term memory loss and bursts of confusion. Neverending doctors appointments forced Alyssa to drop out of seventh grade.
“Cancer happened so fast from the day I turned 13,” Alyssa said. “The whole semester was just thing after thing after things, surgery after surgery after surgery and treatment and transfusions.”
Right: Alyssa with her dog right before she was diagnosed; Left: Alyssa's hair, which reached 41''
The week of Valentines Day, Alyssa woke up and her hair — which was previously to her hips, which she considered her “pride and joy” — lay in clumps on her pillow. That’s when it finally hit her: she had cancer; she wasn’t just a regular kid, she could never be as carefree or as careless as her friends; most (if not all of them) would never understand what she was going through. The body that had sheltered her through childhood was literally battling itself.
“I was still trying to figure out what I was doing and my body and my friends and boys and on top of that, every new treatment or every new surgery or every new whatever I was doing was also changing things up for me,” Alyssa said. “I was having chemo brain or weird reactions to my medicine and I was cold and anemic all the time. I was learning so many things and trying to manage them while trying to be normal. It was such a roller coaster.”
After overcoming a sudden surge of grief and denial, Alyssa regained her optimism and even enjoyed styling all the hats and scarves her parents purchased for her. She began to see cancer as a temporary inconvenience in her life and tried to find joy in daily activities rather than lamenting her ill fate. Frequently, doctors would ask Alyssa how often she cried, which confused her, for she rarely felt sad. Overall, she was content with her life due to a strong support system from friends and family; some of her friends even shaved their heads in solidarity and sent Alyssa gifts of snacks, blankets and toys. Through make-a-wish, Alyssa also received a signed CD, signed hat, and other merchandise from her then favorite singer, Avril Lavigne.
“I was never scared that I was gonna die and I was always at peace if that was gonna be the case,” Alyssa said.
In May, Alyssa began radiation treatments, which caused her previously pin straight hair to turn extremely curly, her skin to get irritated by certain fabrics, and her eyes to become really sensitive to light. Soon after, near the middle of June, she received her cancer free remission diagnosis and her family threw a humongous party to celebrate. Now, Alyssa sometimes speaks as a hero of hope at Relay for Life events for the American Cancer Society.
“When I’m speaking, I sometimes compare how I felt when I heard that I was in remission to being in love and hearing those 3 little words for the first time,” Alyssa said. “Except instead of ‘I love you,’ it was ‘We got it.” And then my whole life changed and everything was beautiful and perfect and there’s really just no way to describe how I felt.”
Alyssa later found out that she had been part of a clinical trial because Hodgkin's lymphoma was rare for her age group and gender. Luckily, Alyssa had received the actual treatment and not a placebo.
“I was a little guinea pig and I'm really happy it worked out,” she said.
While working as a youth director at a church 9 years later, Alyssa met a man who wrote fictional stories based off of real life experiences. After Alyssa shared her cancer story with him, the man remarked that her story was strikingly similar to the one he wrote about a woman fighting breast cancer titled “It’s Just Not Fair.” He mailed Alyssa a copy of the story, which she now keeps with some of her most prized possession in her precious box.
In the story, a woman fights an excruciating battle with cancer, undergoing countless treatments to stay alive for the sake of her husband and kids. When her doctor finally announces she is cancer free, the woman weeps with joy.The doctor then warns the woman of optimistic naivety, telling her that while he’s happy for her, he fears that he can’t “stamp cured on [her] butt and send [her] on [her] way. It's not that easy.”
Like the woman’s, Alyssa’s battle didn’t end when she was pronounced cancer free.
“Just because you're done with treatment doesn't mean you're done fighting,” Alyssa said.
After receiving her cancer free diagnosis, Alyssa visited a HAT (health after therapy) clinic as well as met with a neurologist, nutritionist, and psychologist. For a while, she had to go into the doctor's office for weekly blood draws and monthly x-rays; every couple months, she would get major scans like CT and PET scans. Gradually, the visits became less frequent, but they never entirely went away. For the rest of her life, Alyssa will have to meticulously maintain her health to decrease the chance of her cancer coming back.
“It wasn't like my journey ended when things like got better,” she said. “Cancer was awful, but that wasn't even the worst part — the worst part is that it stuck with me forever.”
For her 10-year cancer free anniversary in the summer of 2017, Bailey, her boyfriend of 3-months (who Alyssa is still together with 3.5 years later and considers the “love of her life”) treated her to a weekend trip in Monterey, Calif. While they were walking on Cannery Row (a waterfront street) in downtown, they passed a sign inside a window with “Wave Street Art Collective” written on it in decorative letters. Intrigued, the two went inside and found themselves in a strange tattoo parlor. Individualistic artwork hung all over the walls and a black and white portrait of a woman stretched from floor to ceiling. The firm Ace Ventura: Pet Detective played on a T.V in the middle of one wall.
A shop employee noticed Alyssa and Bailey checking out the art and inquired as to whether they had an appointment. “It’s Just Not Fair” popped into Alyssa’s mind and with the encouragement of her boyfriend, Alyssa impulsively decided to stamp “cured” on her right shoulder bone. She asked the tattoo artist (who had Van Gogh’s starry night tattooed over his arm) to copy her doctor’s handwriting from her cancer remission certificate, which she had in her purse. She knew she wouldn't regret permanently imprinting her accomplishment.
“After 10 years I felt like I deserved to feel cured,” Alyssa said. “I did all the work and I really felt I deserved to be proud and to wear my stamp of cured.”
Left to right: the tattoo parlor sign, Alyssa getting her tattoo, the artwork on the shop's walls
After getting their tattoos, Alyssa and Bailey (who got a similarly sentimental tattoo) walked into a candy shop located in the same complex as the tattoo parlor. They decided to treat themselves to some sweets.
As Alyssa browsed the arrays of colorful candies, she felt “an immediate flash flood of feelings” build up within her. She scooped some saltwater taffy into a bag and suddenly, her emotions overflowed. She froze. Right in the middle of the store, she began loudly crying. Mascara ran down her cheeks. Employees and customers started staring, yet her tears wouldn’t stop.
“I never had a chance to reflect on my experiences and my ten year cancer anniversary was the very first time where I was like, “Wow, I did a great job and I’m just going to take a moment for me. I was feeling so many feelings.”
Her boyfriend walked up and stood beside her, mortified, while Alyssa had a full meltdown for what to her felt like eternity. Yet, she wasn’t upset. She felt extremely happy and embraced her surge of uncontrollable emotions.
“I've lived such a great life and I am so blessed and I know it,” she said. “I'm so
grateful to be alive that I take chances on just about anything. I’m a bit fearless sometimes (with a touch of calculated crazy).”
Alyssa said she volunteers for pretty much any fun/scary opportunity that comes her way and is usually the first to do a dare. In the past several years, she has traveled to Hong Kong, Germany, Austria, Italy, Mexico, Reno, Hawaii, San Antonio and New York City. She also got a few more tattoos, including one of the Hawaiian Islands (since her mom moved there) and a Sanskrit symbol that means perfect harmony. When she was 18, she moved out of her house and since then has made a few major investments, paid off her student loans and bought a car. She plans to purchase her first home in about a year.
“Cancer made me more spontaneous, goofy and lighthearted, but the best thing it has given me is that it’s made me live in the moment and be present,” Alyssa said. “I want to experience the world and I want to enjoy it.”