Against All Odds: Alyssa Phillips

Devastated by serious health problems, these astonishing women reclaimed their bodies—and their hopes for the future—by taking on challenges that seemed impossible. Here, see how a strong spirit can triumph over even the most weakened body. 

as told to Shelley Levitt
alyssa phillips picture
Photograph: Ben Hoffmann

Alyssa Phillips, 35
Hometown:
Atlanta
Medical Challenge: Cervical Cancer

I became a distance runner when I was 14. My younger sister, Lauren, and I ran together in high school, and as team-mates we set records forthe 4 x 1-mile relay. Then came tragedy: When Lauren was a freshman in college, she began showing symptoms of bacterial meningitis on spring break and died 24 hours later. Getting through that devastating loss helped me develop the emotional fortitude to survive what became my greatest personal trial.

In May 2008, just weeks after I posted my best half-marathon time, I learned that what I’d thought was an especially funky yeast infection was, in fact, metastasized large-cell cervical cancer. It’s a very rare disease, with just a handful of cases worldwide each year, but it’s also one of the deadliest. And I was diagnosed as stage 4. At 31, I had less than a 1 percent chance of being alive in five years.

No one told me that, however. I couldn’t let statistics dictate what would happen to me, so I’d asked notto know my odds of survival. But having been trained as a physician’s assistant—at the time, I worked for a plastic surgeon—I knew things were serious. The pace at which the conversation moved from saving my fertility to saving my life was staggering. The -only reasonable option was a cutting-edge protocol; I’d be the fifth woman to have it, and there was no hard evidence that it would work. But it was a sliver of hope, and I grabbed on to it with both hands.

I had an emergency radical robotic hysterectomy, followed by four rounds of chemotherapy. While I was in the hospital, I surrounded myself with photos of the running awards I’d won. Crying and gritting my teeth in pain, I’d say affirmations such as “I am vibrantly healthy and well.” Then, the last day of my bone marrow harvest, my dressing became contaminated, and I went into septic shock. I experienced such intense shaking that I was afraid my teeth would crack from the chattering. I ended up havingtwo consecutive bone marrow transplants and was put on medication doses so high, my skin turned blue. I spent months under house arrest: My immune system was so compromised, it was dangerous to go outside.

Not many people get to press the pause button on life. I was determined not just to survive my hibernation but also to come out stronger. I’d begun doing power walking on the treadmill when I was in the bone marrow unit, so when I got home, I worked out on our elliptical for 30 minutes a day. I felt as if I were capsizing, as if there were a strong current pulling me in the wrong direction, and exercise was an anchor keeping me steady. When so much had been taken away from me, working out felt empowering.

After three months of isolation, I got permission to go outside. My first move was to take power walks near beautiful Kennesaw Mountain, which felt like sacred ground because I used to run there with my younger sister. A couple of weeks later, I was at the track near our house with my husband, Neil, who was doing sprints. I got really quiet and had a moment of, Should I or shouldn’t I? And my answer to myself was, Yes, I can do this. As I ran again for the first time in six months, my feet hitting the ground over and over, I felt calm, clearheaded and in control.

In October 2010, just shy of the two-year anniversary of my second transplant, I ran my first 5K “Be the Match” race for the National Marrow Donor Program, a nonprofit that helps match donors and patients. I was so eager to run, I looked like a racehorse about to leave the gate. I was the first woman to cross the finish line, and I did it with Neil beside me, holding my hand.

It takes a team of people to get through an illness like mine, and after so much time when I could focus only on myself, the best part of the race was finally being able to give back. I’m feeling healthy now and will be at the 5K this year and every year, to show people that there’s life after a bone marrow transplant—and that miracles do happen. 

Click here to read Dede Cummings story.

First Published January 4, 2012

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