Alicia's Story: Writing About Cancer Alicia Rose Parlette was a copy editor at the San Francisco Chronicle when her doctor told her she had a rare, difficult-to-treat form of cancer. Her journal about her struggle became the basis of a week-long series of articles.
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Alicia's Story: Writing About Cancer

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Alicia's Story: Writing About Cancer

Alicia's Story: Writing About Cancer

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

This is DAY TO DAY from NPR News. I'm Alex Chadwick.

Unidentified Woman: The story starts with Tasha(ph).

CHADWICK: Friday afternoon at the San Francisco Chronicle, a dozen editors, photographers and designers gather in a conference room to study mockups of news pages they will print over this weekend.

Unidentified Man: You guys can fool around with this layout. I just think this is going to be a better picture up there, OK?

CHADWICK: It's for an unusual seven-part series running all this week in the Chronicle, Alicia's Story, and this is how it begins.

Ms. ALICIA ROSE PARLETTE: `On March 2nd, I found out I have cancer. I was 23 and on my own in San Francisco, working at the Chronicle as part of a two-year fellowship.'

CHADWICK: Alicia Rose Parlette was a copy editor at the paper, a starter job where you try to correct mistakes. Three months ago, she got this call from her doctor. She has a rare, difficult-to-treat cancer, alveolar soft part sarcoma. Alicia had never heard of it, but breast cancer had killed her mother just three years ago. Then more tests, cancer in her hip, her breasts, her lungs, a bewildering set of choices including hope and no hope. And needles, syringes--she had dreaded them always and now they are a jagged daily lesson in the self-control she is losing. And Alicia begins to write, begins a series of e-mails to friends and co-workers about her terrors and her discoveries.

Ms. PARLETTE: I wrote them to update friends and family about what was going on, you know, with the cancer and where I was at, my different doctors' appointments. And I also put in little moments of my life that were bright in the middle of all this, too.

CHADWICK: And this is how the managing editor of the Chronicle, Robert J. Rosenthal, Rosie, learns that his young stricken copy editor has something to say, and he offers her the place to say it.

Mr. ROBERT J. ROSENTHAL (Managing Editor, San Francisco Chronicle): Because I felt that it would be a very powerful story if told well; it would be widely relevant and maybe even inspirational and helpful to people. And we talked about that, and as soon as I mentioned writing her story, she lit up and was just, like, `Yes, I want to do that!'

CHADWICK: She is from the Bay area. She had actually dreamed of writing not for a paper, for this paper, when she was a kid and now she begins, really begins with Rosie as an editor sympathetic but only so far. She has to be good enough or the paper will throw it out. Here's an excerpt.

Ms. PARLETTE: `If I get through this, this story will help me remember the important moments along the way, the details, the dizzying emotions. And in the worst of all circumstances, if I go through this life-changing ordeal and my body just wears out and I die, I will die a writer, the one thing I've always wanted to be.'

(Soundbite of traffic)

CHADWICK: Friday morning in San Francisco, a day so beautiful it could be an act of cruelty in these circumstances. We ride the Powell Street cable car down to the Chronicle office. We eat lunch at a French bistro in her neighborhood and sit together in the sun and the wind looking over San Francisco Bay from Lafayette Park.

In that first article, you write about your mom. So you knew a lot about cancer. You knew more than most people know about cancer.

Ms. PARLETTE: Right. I feel like I know a lot about what cancer can do to a family and can do emotionally. I don't know about the medical stuff.

(Soundbite of birds)

CHADWICK: But you'd seen it in your own family.

Ms. PARLETTE: Right. Yeah. And actually my cousin died of cancer, too, the same year that my mom died. So it feels like we've been slammed with this cancer thing.

CHADWICK: A lot of families have that experience...

Ms. PARLETTE: Yeah. Yeah.

CHADWICK: ...but it seems so unfair to have this happen to you at the age of 23.

Ms. PARLETTE: I mean, I don't feel like I have the knowledge to pick what's fair and unfair. I mean, a lot of unfair things happen, and I think that's--I mean, a lot of people have said, `Oh, my gosh, you're so young. Oh, it's just so hard,' and it is. But I don't like focusing on that 'cause you can get in that downward spiral of, `Oh, this is so horrible. Why is this happening to my family?' and that doesn't do anybody any good.

(Soundbite of birds)

CHADWICK: You write about how you went to this club and went dancing. It must have been just a couple of weeks ago...

Ms. PARLETTE: Yeah, it was.

CHADWICK: ...and had a great time.

Ms. PARLETTE: Yeah. Yeah. It was a lot of fun. It was a nice escape and I felt so normal. I felt like me, not like the patient, and sometimes, you know, with all these appointments, I just feel like the cancer patient. It was very refreshing to be able to go out and just dance and that was the end of it. There was nothing else to worry about right then. So...

CHADWICK: Well, how does it seem to you that you--you've become a writer, which is what you wanted to be...

Ms. PARLETTE: Right. Yeah.

CHADWICK: ...because of this episode that happened. You found out that you have cancer. That was the turning point.

Ms. PARLETTE: Right. I mean, I think it's just--it shows me that, you know, as horrible as cancer can be or, you know, losing my mom can be, life still as a whole is not horrible. I have this incredibly amazing thing happening to me right now that my dream, not just professional dream but what I always wanted to be as a person is happening and it's just--I mean, it's helping me get through the cancer stuff and it's really just showing me that life is full of these, you know, bad and good, and to me, having the good at all makes it worth it, makes life fun and exciting.

CHADWICK: Would you say that you are a happy person at this point?

Ms. PARLETTE: I would. Yeah, I would. And here's the weirdest part, probably happier than before I was diagnosed, because I think that slammed everything into perspective, and it made me realize I don't want to be a victim. I don't want to sit here depressed all the time because I have cancer. I could be depressed sometimes, but I want to be happy, too, and I want the happiness to win.

(Soundbite of birds)

CHADWICK: Alicia's Story is running in the San Francisco Chronicle all this week, a big piece every day. For someone 23 or someone 58, it's a good story well told.

Ms. PARLETTE: `I had just left the city and the train was going under the Bay. It was dark and loud as the train roared through the tunnel, and I started to lose it. All of a sudden, I was out of the tunnel looking out as the sun sneaked through Oakland's clouded sky, and it sounds like a cliche, but it made me think of the trials we go through. They're uncomfortable and scary and dark and overwhelming, but then they're through and things go back to almost normal and God's back to showing himself on the other side. And he was never really gone, just up above and all around, and even in a tunnel under a scary bay helping frightened women come up with mantras.'

CHADWICK: Alicia Rose Parlette, former copy editor for the San Francisco Chronicle newspaper, which has just offered her a full-time job as a writer.

(Soundbite of birds)

CHADWICK: Are you a writer for the Chronicle?

Ms. PARLETTE: Yes, I am. Now I am.

CHADWICK: Pictures of Alicia and a link to her story in the San Francisco Chronicle at our Web site, npr.org.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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