Cancer almost took Alison Clarke’s life twice, but in a way it also saved her. It saved her from wasting her talents, wasting her passion and wasting away at menial jobs she hated by giving her the drive to pursue her love of writing.
After finishing university, Clarke (’95 BA, Sociology) found herself at a series of retail jobs she hated. She was working at a grocery store in 2000 when she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a type of cancer of that affects lymph nodes and, by extension, the immune system.
“I was coughing up clear liquid,” says Clarke. “[My doctors] thought it was bronchitis. I had a long history of bronchitis. No one knew what was happening.”
A medical student at the University of Alberta hospital would find the cancer cells that led to the diagnosis of stage three lymphoma. She would undergo chemotherapy for cancer twice in a year. But the horrors of cancer and chemotherapy gave Clarke the push to pursue her first passion.
“If you’re really unhappy in life, it will manifest. I felt like I was wasting away where I was at.” – Alison Clarke
“When I was diagnosed the first time, I told myself I would quit [the grocery store] if I beat cancer. Then I told myself I would go back to school.”
Her degree was in sociology, but writing was her first love. Clarke says libraries were a refuge for her growing up, and books were a safe place she could retreat to. Writing was a natural next step and she’s loved writing since the sixth grade.
Beating cancer gave her the push to pursue a career as a writer, quitting her job and picking up a pen. She fell into children’s literature shortly thereafter, coming up with a story after a writing workshop at the Edmonton Public Library.
Clarke self-published The Adventures of Eli in 2006, a story about an elephant discovering the world. Then, in 2008, she took the next step in her big plans, enrolling in the Master’s of Children’s Literature at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia.
Her connections at Hollins led to the opportunity to get a young adult fantasy novel, The Sisterhood, published in 2015. The story about a sorceress and her dragon tells about their adventures that teach them about the value of friendship and teamwork as they try to save the universe. The success of her novel led to her being nominated for an Afro-Canadian Heroes Award from Diversity Magazine.
Getting her novel published has to lead to more opportunities for Clarke. She says she’s hoping to use it as a “gateway,” as she puts it, to a number of opportunities: to awards, to more books, and to the possibility of teaching after she finishes her MA.
This new life as a published author and looking forward to more publishing is all because of her fight with cancer, and her decision to follow her passion for writing almost 15 years ago.
“If you’re really unhappy in life, it will manifest,” says Clarke. “[Cancer was] not the best way to do it, but it got me out of that place of being in a state of paralysis. I felt like I was wasting away where I was at.”
She’s now in the home stretch of her Master’s degree, putting the final touches on her thesis. But Clarke is also looking past her education, already looking to the next book in The Sisterhood trilogy.
“Writing was an extension of a safe place. When I experienced the cancer, [writing] saved my life. I think without that, I would be despondent.”
The Sisterhood is available at Audrey’s Books, Chapters on Whyte Avenue and Chapters South Point, as well as on Amazon.ca.