Stories of Hope: A Mario-themed wedding, then cancer, then resilience

Morgan Alamo’s diagnosis with Castleman disease — and then Hodgkin lymphoma — started with a routine physical examination that was a requirement of a job she was seeking. “I shaved my head before my first chemo appointment. … It just felt really good to do something I wanted to do and to be in charge, to have control again.”

The origin story for 26-year-old Morgan Alamo and her husband, Elvis, reads like a biopic of pop culture in the early 2000s. In brief: World of Warcraft, Myspace, long-distance instant messaging and a mutual love of Mario all played a central role.

But the soft-spoken and composed Lawrence native, who enjoys battling video game rivals in her free time, couldn’t have anticipated the real-life monsters she would have to overcome. Two days after her Mario-themed wedding, doctors told Alamo for the very first time that they thought she might have cancer.

All of this began six months earlier, with a part-time job opening at a day care, which hardly sounds like a life-altering prospect for most. But for Alamo, a physical examination, which the day care required as part of its interview process, became the catalyst of a yearlong process that would result in a cancer diagnosis.

Stories of Hope

This profile provided by the Lawrence Memorial Hospital Endowment Association is one in a series of 12 about area cancer heroes. These survivors’ stories and photographs hang in the hallway leading to the LMH Oncology Center, offering hope to patients being cared for at LMH Oncology and their families. For more in the series, visit WellCommons.com.

Alamo flexes at one of her chemotherapy appointments.

“I just tried not to be scared and to focus on how to keep moving forward,” Alamo says.

When she visited a doctor’s office for the routine physical, Alamo’s results revealed she was anemic. This initiated a six-month merry-go-round of inconclusive tests and anxiety that required consultations with specialists at Lawrence Memorial Hospital, Kansas University Hospital and the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha. Doctors finally diagnosed Alamo with Castleman disease, a rare disorder that causes overgrowth of cells in a person’s lymph nodes.

Castleman doesn’t always correlate directly with cancer, but in Alamo’s case, doctors found Hodgkin lymphoma in fall 2014. After months of anxiety and confusion, Alamo finally felt as if she was able to retake the reins, with an assertive treatment plan and an empowering personal choice.

“I shaved my head before my first chemo appointment. I had hair almost down to my waist — I’d been growing it for like seven years — and I didn’t want to see it slowly fall out and get thinner,” Alamo recalls. “I was expecting to be sad about it, but it just felt really good to do something I wanted to do and to be in charge, to have control again.”

For six months, Alamo visited LMH for chemotherapy treatments every two weeks. Despite fighting off painful heartburn and an occasional bout of nausea, she remained positive, with the help of the oncology team.

“I could not have asked for better people to work with. Not just the nurses, but the people at the front desk. They’re all amazing,” Alamo says.

Along the way, she relied on the unwavering support of her husband, who provided the encouragement that Alamo’s family, now living in Pennsylvania, could only share over social media or the telephone.

“I think he might’ve taken it harder than me,” Alamo says. “But he’s been amazing. He works so hard to make it so that I don’t have to worry about the little things. He’ll go out of his way so that I can focus on myself and getting better.”

Morgan and Elvis Alamo, who were married in 2014, fought her cancer together. “He’s been amazing,” Morgan says of her husband. They also received support from family, friends and co-workers.

Alamo, who graduated from Kansas University in 2011 with a degree in film and media studies, also experienced overwhelming support from her co-workers at WOW 6 News, where she has served in a part-time producer capacity for more than two years. When she shaved her head at the beginning of chemo treatments, five of her colleagues stood in solidarity by shaving theirs as well. The story made the nightly news.

“They were amazing. They were basically what you’d want from your workplace when you’re going through something like that,” Alamo says.

Today, Alamo is starting to put all that in her past, but she remains cautiously optimistic. While the chemotherapy technically disabled the cancer and the Castleman disease, the rarity of Alamo’s condition means she will always remain on guard.

“Because there are so few people who have it, it’s hard to tell what a normal case is like,” Alamo explains. “I know it can come back, so I’ll always have to be aware and looking for symptoms.”

But she refuses to play the victim; in fact, her experience has empowered her to search out opportunities for involvement.

“When I was feeling discouraged and tired and sick, I would try to remind myself that it could always be worse,” Alamo says. “It was humbling, and it makes me want to be active with organizations like St. Jude and the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.”