UPDATE: Brittany still serves as a videographer for Purpose2Play, but in 2016, she took on a full-time position with Orlando City SC and the Orlando Pride, where she continues to chase the sports stories that deserve to be told.
By Kim Constantinesco
Although being sick requires extra care and attention from doctors, nurses, family, and friends, the big ‘I’ in illness is isolation.
The feeling of being “alone” in a crowded world seems nearly impossible, particularly for someone who lives a stone’s throw from the busy streets of New York City, just across the river, in South Plainfield, New Jersey.
However, when cancer enters the picture, no matter the rate, a hidden, and often lonely battle ensues.
Purpose2Play and Sky Blue FC videographer/sideline reporter Brittany Alvarado knows the battle well.
Alvarado lives and breathes sports.
“I wake up in the morning thinking about sports,” Alvarado said. “What do I dream about? Sports. That’s my happiness, plain and simple.”
This 22-year-old former college athlete pays attention to the sports world’s news, statistics, and odds on a daily basis. It’s her job now, but just last year, she was studying much different numbers and probabilities as it related to her own health.
On August 28, 2014, Alvarado was officially diagnosed with thyroid cancer.
Her neck was sliced open, her thyroid and lymph nodes were removed, and she was stitched up so tight that even the slightest head bobble sent her into waves of tears.
Alvarado got up to use the bathroom for the first time after her six-hour surgery, and she vomited from both the anesthesia and the amount of pain she was in.
As poorly as she felt in that moment, there was a sense of relief, too. She knew that this was the start of being able to move forward; it was the beginning of a new and welcomed kind of normal, because the most recent “normal” didn’t suit her, particularly as an athlete.
A new-found sport
In 2012, her junior year, Alvarado was the starting goalkeeper for the York College field hockey team. The sport was new to her, but the challenge of settling into a new found love was enticing.
Coming out of high school, Alvarado had her sights set on York’s volleyball team, but she didn’t make the cut. She played softball her freshman year, but devastatingly got cut from the team during her sophomore year. Then a friend convinced her to try out for the school’s field hockey team. A summer of hard training landed her the “last defender” gig. After a solid junior year, the mass communications major was fired up to close out her college athletic career on a stellar note. Then in the summer before her senior year, illness hit.
“I was always tired and always wanted to take a nap,” Alvarado said. “I was moody and just never felt right. My mom wanted me to go to the doctor, but as an athlete, I was just confident that I was okay. I had never faced any significant health issue that held me back before.”
Alvarado had a summer internship at the Rutgers athletic department; a job she normally would have been on top of. Instead, she showed up late half the time and had no energy to perform even simple tasks. Her energy continued to dip as the summer continued on.
A mandatory physical before field hockey season started revealed abnormal blood work.
“It was the beginning of the roller coaster,” Alvarado said.
Alvarado was sent to all kinds of specialists for scans and ultrasounds.
Doctors diagnosed her with Graves Disease and hyperthyroidism, but suspected that cancer could be a culprit as well.
“My first question was can I play field hockey? Can I still play sports,” Alvarado said. “I decided as long as doctors cleared me to play, I was just going to do what I could.”
Doctors tossed out her options — she could take radioactive iodine, or she could take medication to help control her thyroid, with the prospect of surgery down the road, after her college athletic career was over.
Naturally, Alvarado chose medication and field hockey.
An athlete needs her body
The medication that doctors prescribed did little to control Alvarado’s symptoms, but she pressed on.
“No athlete wants to admit that they can’t do ‘it’,” Alvarado said. “I was running a timed mile in training with my friend, and after the first lap, I had to stop. My body was just in pain. My thyroid was attacking my whole body. Not even physical therapy could help. Your body is everything to you as an athlete. So what do you do when it’s not working?”
As much as Alvarado was suffering both physically and mentally, she didn’t let her team know about her health issues for various reason. One being that York had just hired a new head coach. Already relatively new to the sport, Alvarado didn’t want her coach to have another reason to discredit her ability.
“I didn’t want to have her use anything against me, not that she could, but I didn’t want her to have any hint that I couldn’t train,” Alvarado.
The whole season was a struggle and Alvarado’s coach scolded her for being out of shape throughout.
“In the back of my mind, it’s like you don’t know what I’m going through,” Alvarado said. “Because thyroid cancer isn’t something that’s really known, I wasn’t just going to come out and say ‘I have thyroid cancer’, because at that point, it was still unconfirmed, and I didn’t feel like giving an explanation.”
Pillars of strength
Alvarado graduated in May and elected to have her thyroid removed in August. It wasn’t until the day before her surgery that she publicly posted on Facebook what she had been going through.
The next morning, before she left for Jersey Shore University Medical Center, her post had over 600 “likes” and 100 comments from family and friends offering their love and support.
“I think the support came at the right time because it was actually happening, and I was ready for it,” Alvarado said. “It came to a point where it was like okay, let’s get this over with, instead of being tugged along.”
Once inside her neck, biopsies were obtained and the cancerous nodes were removed. Still, doctors were unsure whether or not her cancer had spread.
That’s why three months later, Alvarado was put in isolation for three days while she underwent radioactive iodine treatment.
“The radioactive iodine kills off whatever would be left, if there was anything left,” Alvarado said. “After you do the treatment, you do a full body scan, from head to toe. That’s how they determine whether or not anything spread.”
Two weeks prior to treatment, she had to eat a very low sodium diet, and get a thyrogen shot. Then, she was quarantined in her bedroom, not allowed to see or touch anyone.
The high school volleyball team that she helped coach had their “Senior Night” — a night Alvarado had to miss, or rather, experience on FaceTime.
While it was difficult to spend 72 hours in isolation, her scans came back “clean,” indicating a major step forward in the whole process.
Two months later, Alvarado had two separate eye surgeries to correct the effects of Graves Disease — her eyes being pushed outward.
A deeper connection to athletes
Now cancer-free, Alvarado still lives with the effects of thyroid cancer. Because she doesn’t have a thyroid, she has to take a pill every morning for the rest of her life to ensure that her body works properly.
“I need to take a pill to feel good,” Alvarado said. “It’s a day-to-day struggle. I wake up in the morning and I don’t know how I’m going to feel.”
A “bad day” leaves her feeling drained; like she ran a marathon. She also has mood swings that she can’t regulate.
“Even though thyroid cancer is ‘the good cancer,’ it’s still a struggle and still something you go through, and something that scares you,” Alvarado said.”
If health is repaired in hospitals, what is being done to sustain the spirit and the soul in the process?
Luckily for Alvarado, she has sports to lean on. Rather than participating at the college level now, she’s immersed herself into the waters of sports media.
It pumps her full of energy on “down” days, and gives her an avenue to connect with athletes who have struggled and persevered, themselves.
“I’m not happy that I went through this, but it’s almost a blessing in disguise because now I have a bigger platform to inspire people,”Alvarado said. “I want to use my experience to connect with others, because I want to give athletes the opportunity to tell their stories that they wouldn’t otherwise tell sports media. I think it’s important to see other sides of athletes.”
So this woman who used to play basketball with her hair down as a little girl, admittedly because she didn’t know what a ponytail was, is back on the sports scene with a passion that runs deep as ever, and a growing transparency that will allow her to connect richly with some of the world’s best athletes.
That’s her happiness. Plain and simple.
Solitary time well spent.