Inspired to Action

As the early months of autumn shepherd in traditions like trick or treating, pumpkin carving and holiday preparations, one tradition reigns supreme for many high schoolers — Homecoming.

As the early months of autumn shepherd in traditions like trick or treating, pumpkin carving and holiday preparations, one tradition reigns supreme for many high schoolers — Homecoming.

But for one Redondo Union High School senior, the Homecoming football game also marked the beginning of an emotional journey that would test her body, mind and faith as she valiantly engaged in a life-or-death battle that no teenager should ever be expected to fight. In 2001, then seventeen-year-old Alese Coco, sat in the stands cheering on the Sea Hawks. As she absentmindedly brushed her hand against her collarbone, she came across a lump she instinctually regarded as worrisome. Alese’s instincts were affirmed less than a week later when her doctor phoned to inform her family that Alese had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease.

Hodgkin’s disease, or Hodgkin’s lymphoma, is a form of cancer that occurs in the lymphatic system. Often described by doctors as the “good” or “curable” cancer, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society quotes five-year relative survival rate at 91% for patients diagnosed before age 45. While this news can be reassuring for patients and their families, prognosis for patients diagnosed in the later stages of the disease often includes recurrence and refractory disease. For patients such as Alese, who find themselves facing Hodgkin’s multiple times when their cancer recurs after months or years of intensive treatment and remission, each battle becomes more trying and this “good” cancer is quickly reduced to its true, bad self.

My life was changed in 2003 when I had the extreme fortune of meeting Alese and we soon after became best friends. At the time, Alese was in remission after beating her disease twice through several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, as well as a stem cell transplant. As she often liked to put it, the official score at that time was “Alese 2, Cancer 0”. Beyond her bubbly, blonde, SoCal girl exterior and her winning attitude was a calm and confident disposition which played the yin to her yang of a powerfully outgoing spirit with an unspoken magnetic wisdom that effortlessly drew everyone she met into her close, loving circle of support. It was because of this that we were all shocked and saddened to learn that Alese’s Hodgkin’s lymphoma had come back a third time.

With an undefeated reputation to maintain, Alese adopted the slogan Fight 2 Win. What Alese soon found out was there were countless others around the world Fighting 2 Win against Hodgkin’s lymphoma too. Thousands of people kept track of Alese’s progress through her website, AleseCoco.org, which became a wealth of information for other Hodgkin’s patients including details on cutting edge clinical drug trials in which she participated, tips and helpful hints learned by Alese and her family and a candid, first hand account of it all in her updated journal entries. Without even knowing it, Alese had become an unofficial figurehead of the Hodgkin’s community.

On May 7, 2007, Alese’s triumphant journey was devastatingly cut short when she passed away from respiratory complications following a surgical error weeks earlier. The collective heartache was felt not only throughout the South Bay, but also globally around the online community of over 350,000 who had visited Alese’s website, as a dear friend and Hodgkin’s disease pioneer was mourned.

Within days of her passing, Alese’s oncologist and world-renowned Hodgkin’s disease researcher Dr. Owen O’Conner contacted Alese’s parents, Paul and Kathy, and asked if they would join him to create the Alese Coco — Fight 2 Win Campaign to raise awareness and funding for research to eventually turn this “curable” cancer into a cured cancer. Knowing how much Alese valued making a difference in the lives of others with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, the Cocos agreed to partner with Dr. O’Conner and the foundation was established in July 2007, soon followed by the founding of the Alese Coco Hodgkin’s Research Laboratory at Columbia University in New York.

The foundation’s momentum continued to grow this past July, when I had the exciting opportunity to spend a day on the lot of Paramount Studios in Hollywood to witness the filming of the Fight 2 Win Campaign’s first public service announcement. A true testament to Alese’s influential spirit, nearly every service was provided at greatly reduced or no cost at all. From the use of Paramount’s lot, to the time and talents of the staff at local advertising agency DraftFCB, to the directorial expertise of the Russo brothers (You, Me and Dupree, Arrested Development), professionals from all over Southern California and the South Bay joined together to create an important contribution to the Fight 2 Win Campaign’s efforts to find a cure for Hodgkin’s. “We became involved with Fight 2 Win because we had the rare opportunity to work on something that mattered more than someone else’s business model,” explained account manager Kali Waters of DraftFCB. “We have the opportunity to see lives saved. It has been a very life-affirming project.” The PSA is set to air on major television networks and online at the end of this year.

As the Alese Coco — Fight 2 Win Campaign journeys forward in its quest to make Hodgkin’s lymphoma a thing of the past, I can’t help but to think that after traveling her own arduous path towards survival, Alese has in a way returned to the beginning of the road where her efforts will make the road less challenging for a new generation of Hodgkin’s patients. I guess in a sense it is her Homecoming game — one that is sure to end victoriously over a once formidable rival.


For more information on the campaign or to make a donation, visit fight2win.com.

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