By JEROD CLAPP
The suitcases were packed and ready to go in the car. Alyssa Paro and her husband, Will, were about to make a 14-hour trip to Wisconsin with their two children, Ava and Liam.
But they weren’t battling snow and a longer-than-usual drive just to see family, though that fit in the trip. Alyssa, 28 years old, was making an appearance at a cancer benefit for her.
In the span of just a few months, Alyssa had gone from being healthy to facing breast cancer, a disease expected to claim the lives of nearly 40,000 women in 2013, according to the American Cancer Society. After two major surgeries, she learned she’d also begin a regimen of chemotherapy before she left to visit her hometown.
“It just happened so fast that I really had no time to think,” Paro said. “What I’ve read on the Internet, normally when women have a lump or something, they want to keep an eye on it for six months or so. I was not prepared for that either.”
Her brand of breast cancer wasn’t obvious and has required aggressive treatment, with more on the way.
But her attitude and willingness to fight has given her a positive prognosis, and help continues to come from all over, including Rock Creek Community Academy, where in-laws have been working for years.
AGGRESSIVE AND RARE
Christmas was coming up in less than a month when Paro got her diagnosis.
“It all happened within a month, it was so fast,” Paro said. “So many people said it probably wasn’t what they thought it was.”
Visits to her family doctor for examinations and tests didn’t give him a solid opinion. Paro said she got an ultrasound that also came out clear.
The National Cancer Institute recommends regular mammograms for women at age 40 or older.
Paro needed one 13 years earlier than that.
But because of her age, her insurance company resisted paying for the procedure. Her doctor, Rick Bobay, fought their denial and convinced them to cover the diagnostic. That’s when doctors understood what was going on.
“If I wouldn’t have had a mammogram, they wouldn’t have found out I have cancer,” Paro said.
Doctors diagnosed her with Paget disease of the breast. According to the National Cancer Institute’s website, the average age of women diagnosed with this type of cancer are 57 years old and represent 1 to 4 percent of all breast cancer diagnoses.
A month later, at 27 years old, the young mother had a double mastectomy. Later, she had lymph nodes removed from the right side of her body.
She said doctors told her aggressive treatment was necessary. Older women who are diagnosed with Paget’s don’t see quite as quick a spread of the disease, but because of her age, her hormones and metabolism could have caused it to move into other parts of her body faster.
Through the whole process, Paro said she kept a video diary on YouTube to not only get her emotions out, but to inform others that breast cancer can hit anyone at any time.
“I wanted to have a place to share, I have lots of friends and family across the country,” Paro said. “ I wasn’t really afraid. I share my struggles on there, but I wanted it to be a place for people to learn and not be afraid for the future.”
She sells T-shirts on her website, VivaLaCure.org, which have helped her family take care of the medical bills. While people across the country have reached out to her, others closer to home have stepped in to help, too.
Bill Paro, Alyssa’s father-in-law, has been a coach and a teacher at Rock Creek Community Academy, as well as working a number of other jobs there for nearly 20 years.
Sara Hauselman, principal, said the school has known the Paros for a long time. Will graduated from there, and Alyssa and Liam are in the school’s preschool and kindergarten programs, respectively.
She said when the school found out one of their own was facing a battle with cancer, they were quick to take action.
“They’re just real entrenched in the whole works there, that’s why we decided to do this,” Hauselman said. “We heard a couple of things about people helping them. It’s a shame that people she doesn’t even know are helping her, we [decided we] needed to help her.”
The school began selling shirts of their own to send proceeds to Alyssa and her family. Hauselman said shirts went on sale for students, and on the following day they were allowed to wear regular clothes instead of uniforms, the hallways were filled with pink T-shirts.
“We do things like this whenever we hear of a need like this, but this one’s really hit close to home,” Hauselman said. “Part of what we try to teach the kids is community service. We have a big fundraiser in the spring... but this is just a little bit closer to our hearts.”
The school also encouraged fans of the basketball team to wear the shirts at the junior varsity and varsity boys’ game on Thursday. Several in the stands had the shirts on.
Jennifer Brown, dean of students, said in a week, they expected to sell 75 to 100 shirts. All 275 were purchased.
“The students don’t necessarily know Alyssa, but they have a connection to her through coach Paro,” Brown said. “Any time anyone sees a cause like this, they come out for it.”
She said along with the $16 sale of the shirts, some people handed over a $20 bill and did not ask for change. In one instance, someone gave $100 for a shirt.
She said not including donations taken up at Thursday’s game, the school raised about $2,000 for the Paros.
Lisa Cundiff, a middle school math teacher at Rock Creek, attended the game with her pink shirt on. She said her seventh-graders were hosting a dance Saturday night and decided to give the proceeds to the Paros.
“My class just felt the need to really help them out,” Cundiff said. “They were going to use the money for a trip to Chicago, but this is a cause they thought was more important.”
Paro said she knew the school had something planned for her family, but didn’t know what it was. She said she would have attended the game Thursday if she and her family weren’t already headed to Wisconsin.
But she said she was moved by the gestures all the same.
“I couldn’t believe it, it was so much emotion,” Paro said. “I don’t normally get caught speechless. I know this is a rare case, but I didn’t see how I was special enough for them to do this for me.”
Though she still has more treatment ahead of her, Paro said she wants to continue informing women and men about symptoms they should look out for through her video blog.
In the meantime, her school family is just thrilled to have a hand in helping her.
“They’re a family that’s been affiliated with this school for about two decades,” Cundiff said. “They have always been there to help our school and the kids. Any way we can repay them and help them is well worth it.”