“Pardon me. Stop, everyone,” she said from the operating table to a room full of medical professionals, most of whom she had never met before that day. “Today you are going to change my life, and I promise I’m going to do something to show my gratitude.”
Shortly after she made that proclamation, a 14-hour surgery at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital saved the life of Alyssa Fischer-Reeder, SOC/BA ’03, SOC/MA ’06. That surgery, though, also took half her tongue. And it was risky. More recently, a second surgery of more than 12 hours replaced 95% of her jawbone.
Just months after Alyssa graduated from American University, she was working and making plans to attend graduate school on campus when she fell ill. At first, she assumed it was fatigue from a busy schedule, but she soon learned that she had a rare tongue cancer. Officially it was an oddity. Personally, it was a tragedy: Alyssa had plans. She wanted to teach or work in the nonprofit sector, but one month after diagnosis, she found herself in that operating room.
“I promised myself that if I made it, I would return to the classroom and face my goal, and in some way down the road, I would give back,” Alyssa says. She knew it would be difficult, but her parents had always told her that education was a gift, and she was determined to receive it.
Alyssa did return to AU to earn her master’s degree. She recalls going back to the classroom with a stomach tube still in place. Still, she says, she felt supported every step of the way, describing her professors as “phenomenal.” Alyssa believes the gift of an AU education set her up for success.
Alyssa’s network of faculty, family, and friends were central to her healing, and as a survivor, she decided to start a nonprofit to help other head and neck cancer patients. “People like me generally can’t eat, can’t speak, and have a high rate of depression and suicide,” she says. Alyssa started Head Neck Cancer Fund to facilitate financial support for others experiencing head and neck cancer. “We believe in high impact funding,” Alyssa says. In addition to supporting research for head and neck cancers, her goal is to raise $100,000 for every patient her organization helps.
Through the ups and downs of her own life, Alyssa kept her promise and is giving back to make a difference in the lives of others. She is grateful every day for her education—and now for the chance to pass that gift on to her two young children.
Alyssa describes herself as “covered in scars” thanks to cancer but “laughing every day” thanks to husband Daniel, adding with an air of conviction: “I believe in the power of hope and philanthropy.”