Author: Andy Goldstein, NASBA Webmaster and Electronic Media Specialist
September has long been recognized as National Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. In a speech from President Obama last month, he said this dedication was made to "remember the young lives taken too soon, stand with the families facing childhood cancer today, and rededicate ourselves to combating this terrible illness." In part of that recognition, and year-round, NASBA is a proud supporter of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. Since 1962, the research and patient care conducted at St. Jude has played a pivotal role in pushing overall U.S. pediatric cancer survival rates from 20 to 80 percent. One such survivor is part of our NASBA family. Here is her story:
Allie Marcoccia spent her final year at Lawrence County High School in Moulton, AL, dealing with typical senior stuff, like what dress to wear to prom and where to go to college.
But at 17, Marcoccia received frightening news that put her joyful life on hold. She was diagnosed with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia (ALL).
"It didn't actually sink in until St. Jude ran their own tests, and the results came back the same," said Marcoccia, an International Credential Evaluator at NASBA. "All I knew was that I had to beat it because I wasn't done living."
ALL is a type of cancer in which the bone marrow makes too many immature lymphocytes (a type of white blood cell). These cells are also called leukemia cells. Leukemia cells are not able to fight off infection as well as normal lymphocytes can.
According to the American Cancer Society, the risk for developing ALL is highest in children younger than 5 years of age. Leukemias and cancers of the brain and central nervous system account for more than half of childhood cancers. In the U.S. in 2007, approximately 10,400 children under age 15 were diagnosed with cancer. On average, one to two children develop the disease each year for every 10,000 children in the U.S.
But Marcoccia is not one to let statistics dampen her spirits. Throughout her battle, she always tried to maintain a positive attitude.
"The more you fight, the more likely you'll be able to beat it," she said. "When you start to give up is when things can become fatal."
Marcoccia began treatments within a couple of days after her diagnosis, which were exhausting. She made many trips to the Emergency Room due to the effects brought on from chemotherapy, medication and steroid treatments. In the first two weeks of treatment, she began to lose her hair, but gained a nickname that summed up her resolve and attitude: "Bald and Beautiful."
Anita Max, now a Nurse Practitioner at St. Jude, was one of the inpatient nurses on the Leukemia/Lymphoma team who cared for Marcoccia. As it seems to ring true with all her patients, Max said it was a challenge to watch Marcoccia go through the initial diagnostic process and required surgeries.
"As Allie and her family struggled to grasp the reality of Allie's diagnosis, I strived to assist with both supporting them emotionally, and educating them on what to expect from treatment, along with their role in following safety/patient care guidelines in order to reduce the risk of infection and optimize outcomes for Allie," said Max. "Staying positive but remaining realistic was important to them."
While undergoing treatment, Marcoccia's dad would send emails called "Allie Updates" to family and friends. Knowing so many people were praying for her and counting on her to defeat the disease kept Marcoccia going through the long and painful treatments. She also said the thought of not being able to go to college was another facet that kept her fighting.
"I had just received my acceptance letter to the University of Alabama about a month before I was diagnosed," she said. "I worked too hard to get in there. I had to get well enough to start school."
She was put into remission about two months after her diagnosis, but had to endure chemotherapy treatments for another two and a half years.
"It was an amazing feeling when the doctors came in and said I was finally in remission, even though I still had two and a half years of chemo left," Marcoccia said. "The cancer was gone. Now we just had to keep it gone. The real joy came the day of my ‘No Mo Chemo' party! That's when you know the fight is over."
Since winning the fight, Marcoccia tries to enjoy life to the fullest every day. After graduating from the University of Alabama with a degree in entrepreneurship and small business management, Marcoccia moved to Nashville and began working at NASBA. In the years following, she has gotten married, bought a house and, in 2010, became a very proud mother to a daughter named Kate.
"Seeing her go to college, get married and have a beautiful daughter are the crowning jewels of Allie's successful fight with ALL," said Max. "Allie has been, and continues to be, an inspiration to me."
Though Marcoccia has happily moved past the difficult journey she faced as a teenager, she will never forget the fight, or the people who supported her during that time. Marcoccia visits St. Jude periodically for therapy on her joints, due to the side effects of the chemotherapy, and for her annual check-up. She credits the doctors, nurses and staff at St. Jude for helping her through the toughest period in her life.
This December marks the 10th anniversary of Marcoccia's remission.
In 1962, the overall 5-year survival rate for childhood ALL was only 4%, and has since climbed to 94%. One way to join the fight against childhood cancer is to support the efforts of St. Jude Children's Research Hospital. For more information, please visit their website.
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