Alex Parrone had never experienced a headache.
So when the Minot State University redshirt freshman felt excruciating pain in her skull during routine volleyball drills in February, she figured it was a migraine.
She'd later find it was much worse.
Minot State University volleyball player Alex Parrone, right, poses with her brother, Brandon, following a March surgery to remove a cancerous tumor from her brain. Photo courtesy of Alex Parrone.
'I thought I was gonna die'
MSU Athletic Director Rick Hedberg took a look at Parrone and decided she needed to go to the emergency room. At least that's what Parrone was told. She doesn't remember much.
Parrone was eventually transferred from Minot's Trinity Hospital to St. Joseph's Hospital in St. Paul, Minn., where it was determined that a bleeding tumor on her brain caused the headache. The initial tests of the fluid revealed no cancerous cells, but an additional biopsy proved otherwise.
Alex's mother, Lisa, later said she sensed the worst from the somber way the doctors entered the room to deliver the news, but the diagnosis caught Alex completely off guard.
She had a cancerous tumor on her brain.
"I didn't think positively when I first heard it," said Alex, who was well on her way to recovering from a torn ACL that sidelined her for the 2012 season. "I thought I was gonna die."
"I couldn't believe it, because I'd been perfectly fine for my entire life and there were no symptoms. I didn't take it the best for the first day, and it took awhile to really sink in that I had cancer. It's one of those stories you think is never going to happen to you."
Doctors asked if Alex had been exposed to radiation because her form of cancer is almost never found in patients her age. She hadn't.
"They were going to do a case study on me because it's such a rare thing," Alex said. "It's normally found in 50-year-olds."
Amid the bad news came a bit of luck. Another St. Joseph's hospital, one in Phoenix that included the Barrow Neurological Institute and renowned neurosurgeon Dr. Robert Spetzler, was just a 30-45 minute drive from Parrone's hometown of Peoria, Ariz.
Parrone would be able to confront this challenge from home.
On March 22, a racquetball-sized tumor was removed from Parrone's brain - a procedure Parrone described as "the scariest thing" she's ever been through.
By then, Parrone's initial dark thoughts upon hearing the diagnosis had given way to the sunny outlook she's displayed ever since.
Lisa and Mark Parrone saw strength in their daughter they never knew existed.
"I would say that both her father and I are amazed, almost dumbfounded, at how well she is handling this and how positive she has remained throughout this whole experience to this point," Lisa said. "For somebody her age to have gone through this, she has never said - at least out loud - 'Why me?' It's always, 'What do we do next?' She doesn't always love it, but she knows these are things she has to do to get better."
Samantha Ziola-Vega, Alex's roommate and teammate at MSU, speaks with Alex almost daily and provides updates on Minot and the volleyball team.
"Sure, there's been times when she's been scared," Ziola-Vega said. "With her, she's always so positive about everything. 'I'm going to be back in Minot. I'm going to play again.' "
For Parrone, the optimistic approach was a simple choice.
"It's been a religious experience through all of this," she said. "It's a waste of time to be sad and mope around. I can't do anything about it, so why be miserable? I'd rather enjoy spending time with my family than play 'woe-is-me' about it."
Outpouring of support
Parrone's support system is multi-layered.
Receiving treatment in Phoenix means she's close to family and friends. By volunteering the last three summers for Arizona Camp Sunrise Sidekicks - a weeklong residential camp for children whose siblings have or had cancer - Parrone already had a large group of survivors in her corner.
"All these survivors were texting me sharing their stories of survival," Parrone said. Parrone and Ziola-Vega plan to serve as camp counselors again this summer.
Then there are the efforts of MSU and the city of Minot.
Tutti Frutti of Minot held a fundraiser for Parrone, raising between $2,600 and $2,800, MSU volleyball coach Travis Ward said.
A gathering of about 50 alumni in Arizona featured Parrone and Ziola-Vega as guests of honor. A check was also given to the Parrones at that event.
Ward said the MSU Student Activities Committee and the biology department are also planning events for Alex, and others have contacted Ward asking how they can help.
"It's been phenomenal," Lisa said. "It really drove home she picked the absolute only university she should. I don't think she would've gotten that support anywhere else, at least not the universities I'm familiar with."
Said Ward: "I really didn't expect anything less. People in North Dakota and people at Minot State are great people."
The monetary support has been nice; Lisa said the hospital never sends all the medical bills at once because "it's too overwhelming."
But the comfort provided to the family doesn't have a dollar value.
"I know she'll be in good hands when she goes back," Lisa said.
Return to the court?
Alex was cleared Monday to exercise without limitations.
That night, Lisa sent Ward a video of her daughter setting volleyballs against a wall. In the footage, Alex complained that her arms were sore, not her head that had a racquetball-sized mass removed from it exactly a month before. Ward took this as a good sign.
Alex has spoken with Ward about returning to the team and doctors have given her encouraging news. Alex said her oncologist told her there is no doubt she will be able to return to her previous activity level.
That will take time.
Now that she's cleared to exercise, Alex is beginning physical therapy again on her knee. She's also planning to start therapy to regain some of the peripheral vision loss that resulted from the surgery.
In addition, Alex will continue her morning radiation therapy sessions and nightly doses of anti-nausea and chemotherapy pills.
"My thoughts automatically go to chemo and losing your hair and being miserable," Alex said of her initial reaction to having cancer. "This chemo, I have no side effects. I have all my hair. I just take it before bed and go to sleep."
Alex began her six-week daily dose of chemo on April 15. After that initial period, she'll have to take five pills per month for a year.
Fortunately for Lisa - a speech language pathologist for Phoenix Day School for the Deaf - and Mark, a co-owner of a private preschool and kindergarten, the family has good health insurance. The tab for Alex's first month of chemotherapy and anti-nausea pills was $14,000, but the copay was just $50.
Alex's plan is to return to school in the fall and rejoin the volleyball team. She'd like to be able to play immediately, but acknowledged that redshirting this season is more realistic.
"She's always had the motivating factor of getting back on the volleyball court," Lisa said.
Almost in passing, Alex mentions the downside of her cancer - that this particular type has been known to reappear.
She's much more anxious to talk about the steps she can take to rejoin her teammates in Minot, the good news her doctors have given her, how chemotherapy isn't all that bad.
She believes she'll play again, and that optimism has transferred to those staying in touch with her.
"What an incredible deal if she gets to come back and play, and that's what it's looking like right now," Ward said. "That'd be really special for all of us if we were able to see her get back on the court."