By Maria Rocha-Buschel
Stuy Town native Alexa Cucchiara is excited to be graduating from college next spring, but she has more reason to celebrate than most: she is doing so after surviving cancer and writing a book.
Cucchiara was a sophomore at Marist College in Poughkeepsie about two years ago when she started not feeling well and got a swollen lymph node about the size of a golf ball around her collarbone. She went to the doctor to get it checked but it wasn’t until September 2017 when she was about to start her junior year that a doctor confirmed that she had Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and would need chemotherapy.
“I turned 20 and then six days later I started chemo,” she said. “I would always joke around and would say, no, this is preparing me for adulthood. I would try to embrace it and have fun with it, even when I lost my hair and everything.”
Now studying at Fordham University in the Bronx to be closer to her family and network of friends who supported her while she was sick, Cucchiara at first couldn’t believe she had cancer and even when her doctor recommended surgery and chemotherapy for treatment, resisted the idea that she would have to leave school to recover.
“I just felt like, this is not possible, this is not true,” she said. “I tried to live the life that I did beforehand and tried to continue to go school when in reality it was like, Alexa, you have to take off the whole entire year because you actually need to fight for your life and you need to take this time to heal and become healthy again. It was really hard for me to process that.”
During her treatment and recovery, she kept a journal and wrote down ideas throughout the entire process, and although she would joke with her friends about various anecdotes making it into her book, the idea eventually became a reality.
“It was difficult at first to come to terms with everything I was dealing with, but once I was in it, and I started to accept it and talked about it with more with people, that’s when I thought, this is part of my journey,” she said. “This is part of my life story so I wanted to make it something positive.”
The book, titled “Power to Persevere,” was published on December 2. Rather than just write a memoir about her own experience, though, she wanted to create something about people facing all different kinds of challenges, which is also how she viewed her cancer. She spoke with art therapists, doctors and psychologists, integrating their point of view and expertise with her own research on cancer and her experience.
Since her focus was primarily on the challenge that cancer presented her, she didn’t necessarily limit herself to speaking with people who had survived that or another illness, interviewing Isaiah Lamb, a formerly-homeless basketball player, and Larissa May, who founded a non-profit organization focusing on mental health issues after she personally experienced debilitating anxiety and sleep deprivation, in addition to also speaking with cancer survivors.
“This book is not about cancer,” she said. “It’s about overcoming challenges. We all have something we’re dealing with, and we need to understand that we’re not alone.”
She added that part of her motivation was creating this book for other people because she never had anything like it during her own treatment.
“I thought it was really important and that the conversation around this needed to start. We need to talk about vulnerability and things you’re battling and that it’s challenging your life,” she said. “My challenging story was cancer so within each chapter I do talk about a particular memory that I had during my journey, whether it was before cancer, after cancer or during treatment.”
She also said that her treatment and recovery changed her perspective on what she wants to do when she finishes school. She originally went to Marist to study business and fashion and while she said that she’s still studying business at Fordham, she wants to pursue something in addition to that aimed at helping people.
“I saw myself in the mirror [after finishing chemotherapy], still with short hair and scars all over my body and trying to fit in back to this society at school, but what it made me realize is that I want to do something in my life to help other people,” she said. “I want to engage in a career that revolves more around human interaction and communication.”
Cucchiara said that even though treatment and recovery were difficult, she was ultimately able to stay positive even when she felt like she didn’t have any hope because she managed to shift her perspective.
“I started to become a victim to it at first but then I felt like everything in life happens for a reason, and I automatically started to change the way that I viewed it,” she said. “I felt that something good was going to come out of this, and even during my darkest days I would just like constantly remind myself, it’s going to be okay, this is happening for a reason. There’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.”
While she was raised Roman Catholic, she said that she became more spiritual and felt more connected with God during her recovery than she has in the last few years.
“I had kind of started to turn away from religion but then as soon as this all happened, I was called to it again and it’s the one thing that gets me through my day,” she said. “I read my devotional every single day, read scripture every day. There’s so much in the Bible itself that just could help every single person with their journey, or any challenge that they’re dealing with. There are so many words of encouragement.”
After she finished chemo, she made a spur-of-the-moment-decision to leave Marist once she was accepted at Fordham, where decided to apply because she wanted to transfer to a school that was closer to home.
During her treatment, while she lived with her parents in Stuyvesant Town, she reconnected with old friends from Epiphany School, where she went as a kid, and wanted to be closer to that network as well.
“They’ve seen me grow into this new person and if they were there for me during the worst time in my life, I want to come down and see them every weekend or spend time with my family,” she said. “Life is too short, so why waste it not spending with people who you love?”
Cucchiara’s book is available to purchase through her website.