Finding hope and faith in cancer's despair

Last Thursday, Alicia Parlette died. She was 28 years old.Parlette was a copy editor for the San Francisco Chronicle who was diagnosed with alveolar soft part sarcoma when she was 23. She wrote about her diagnosis, life,and battle with cancer in a seventeen-part series for the paper. I've spent the last couple of days reading "Alicia's Story" online, subtitled "Cancer. Despair. Hope. Faith," and through her honest vulnerability, I found myself feeling like I was in her shoes and oscillating between despair, hope, and faith.Despair at receiving a diagnosis for a disease that 15 to 80 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with each year, and has few options for treatment. Despair knowing that Parlette had lost her mom just three years earlier, also to cancer (lymphoma). Despair that her dreams to go to seminary, to have children, and to have a life full of possibilities were stolen from her. Despair knowing that her dad, who had already lost his wife, would also lose his daughter. And worst of all, despair that at 16, she had gone to the doctor after feeling intense pain in her right hip--pain that was wrongly diagnosed as a benign cluster of blood vessels but was really a tumor hiding in her veins. A misdiagnosis realized seven years later, when the cancer had spread to her lungs and breast. But then there were the glimmers of hope. The good moments that came from the outpour of love and support she received from family, friends, and people she didn't even know. Hope in the funny moments, like realizing that she technically had "butt cancer," chugging down barium for the people in her life, or her family singing "Happy Shot Day to You" when Parlette was able to finally give herself her first shot of interferon and overcome her fear of needles. Hope in the brightness of being surrounded by sunflowers in a hospital room--sunflowers being the symbol of the Sarcoma Alliance. Hope when they found no lingering signs of cancer in her breasts, and she could say that at least some part of her was normal. Hope as she took control of what she could control and refused to "die before she was already dead." And throughout the series, Parlette often made references to God and her faith. Faith in the belief, which she and her friends and family held on to, that she was a miracle--even if she didn't live. Faith that provided a constant uplifting through the prayers being said for her. Faith to lean on God, and somehow understand why this was happening to her; how it didn't feel right for her to pray that she would be healed--even though that was what she really wanted. Faith that broke through as Parlette, emerging from a dark tunnel on a BART ride, thought about how trials are "uncomfortable and scary and dark and overwhelming--but then they're through and things go back to (almost) normal, and God's showing himself on the other side."And these are just a smattering of examples of Parlette's despair, hope, and faith expressed in her story.If I'm going to be honest, reading "Alicia's Story" mostly struck a lot of fear in me. I'm 24, and while I don't have cancer, it was really hard for me to think about Parlette being diagnosed at 23 and dying at 28. It was also scary to think about her misdiagnosis at 16,and how, at 17, I had a procedure to rule out the possibility of cancer ... and what if that was wrong, too? At one point, Parlette's therapist told her something that really stood out to me: While most people focus on the outcome, it's more important to focus on the process. None of us know where our lives will lead us, or what will happen in them. But it's in noticing the moments in between that help hope and faith keep from being overrun by despair. "Alicia's Story" is exemplary of that.