Alex George sat at the "Good Morning Chattanooga" anchor desk one May morning, fighting through tears on live television as two colleagues sat beside her to offer support.
"I'm going home to Philadelphia to kick some cancer butt and come right back here," the then-22-year-old reporter said. "The community here and the people have just become so ingrained in my life."
With that message, George announced to the local community that she would be taking medical leave to seek treatment for a malignant primitive neuroectodermal tumor — a rare form of pediatric bone cancer. She smiled, promising to come back, and signed off.
She wouldn't return on air for Chattanooga's WTVC-NewsChannel 9, the local Sinclair Broadcasting Group-owned ABC affiliate. The company fired her while she was home with her family.
WTVC representatives declined comment, but a New York-based public relations firm representing Sinclair said in a statement that the company offers benefits beyond what is legally required.
"Sinclair and the WTVC family will continue to pray for Alex's recovery, and we wish her and her family the best," a spokesperson wrote in an email. "While these situations are never easy, we believe that our long term disability policy is extremely competitive and reflects our concern for our employees who become ill or suffer from other issues."
George, now 23, spends her days either receiving chemotherapy treatments or recovering from their draining side effects back home in Moorestown, New Jersey, with her parents, Ed and Danya George.
In fitting fashion, Alex George's body has matched her attitude — it's fighting back. But that means nausea, vomiting, dizziness, headaches, and "my mouth sores are out of control," she said. She gets her treatment through inpatient care, so she can be fully monitored as she recovers. She's on a double dose of what doctors have told her family are five of the most aggressive treatments.
It's been a cycle of two weeks in bed, recovering, and one week out of bed before she repeats the series. She's gone through six cycles in eight months, and each brings with it about three good days, her mother said.
The family tries to enjoy those days, but everything revolves around the cancer and the treatment. A trip to the movies involves arriving early, ensuring Alex has plenty of blankets, and worrying about white blood cell counts and potential infections. Her body hasn't responded well to the treatment, but most importantly, it's working, she said. The cancer is gone. The treatment now is to ensure it doesn't return.
Through it all, she's remained in good spirits. The upbeat George hasn't allowed cancer to dim her joyful attitude. Her family tactfully focuses on positivity. They believe she's lucky to be alive.
They had been told her particular type of cancer is difficult to find. She was misdiagnosed three times, she said. It's rare, affecting a couple hundred people per year, or about one in a million.
"My mom always told me I was one in a million," she said. "But I don't think she meant like this."
George was told several times, after initial testing, that doctors couldn't find anything wrong. Had the cancer continued to spread or not been found, it likely would have been fatal.
She went to Erlanger East Hospital and met with Dr. Todd Cockerham.
"He will forever be the man who saved my daughter's life," Danya George said.
Cockerham knew something was wrong, he told the family. He had seen it before, nearly two decades earlier. During his residency, he had a patient with the rare cancer. He pulled from that knowledge and eventually was able to make the diagnosis. Further testing confirmed it, and Alex George got the surgery and treatment necessary to remove the tumor.
Much of her positivity comes from what was one of the best days of George's young life: Sept. 12, the day she found out she was cancer free. After surgery, treatments and the daily lows that come with the disease, it was gone.
"That was the best news," George said. "It was just wonderful."
She and her parents celebrated together, in quiet fashion, with a meal for three at the popular Philadelphia Pan-Asian restaurant Sampan.
'I hope to be back soon'
Since that May broadcast, Alex George's story has been shared widely. Her friends and former colleagues offered their support. Two of her closest friends at the station, Brittany Martin and Kayla Strayer, have driven to see her and check in regularly.
Community members back home raised thousands of dollars and took part in a run in her honor. The Chattanooga community voted her as Best Columnist/Reporter in the annual Times Free Press Best of the Best awards in September. She was surprised but thrilled. Martin and Strayer accepted the award on her behalf, excitedly sending her photos and encouraging messages throughout the night. She had been having one of her worst days in the midst of what she called a "chemo-induced haze."
The NewsChannel 9 official Twitter account offered its own message of support: "Alex, we are so proud of you, and wish you the very best as you continue to show cancer who's boss!"
Two months later, Alex George got a call from her supervisors at the TV station. They informed her Sinclair Broadcast Group was terminating her contract about six months early. She had been receiving disability payments while getting treatment. That immediately stopped. She no longer had a job, she was told. A company spokesperson later told the Times Free Press that Sinclair would consider exploring "possible roles for her" in the future if she wants to return.
"Shocked is a fair word," George said. "I definitely wasn't expecting it. I thought the call was just going to be a check-up. I was disappointed, shocked, hurt ...
"I was looking forward to going back, but they made a different decision," she said. "I'm disappointed but have to focus on getting better."
For now, George will continue her cancer treatments and decide what's next. That may involve local news, but it might not.
"I enjoyed what I was doing," she said. "I think it may be news, but if not there's something exciting to come."
There is one thing she's sure about: she wants to be closer to home. She wants to be able to see her family on holidays and more regularly throughout the year. She missed them and her hometown.
On that May day, as Alex George looked at bullet points on a teleprompter, she believed she owed it to viewers to explain her absence.
Many in the community had shared personal details with her for stories she had reported. She thought it only fair to do the same. She wasn't sure anyone would notice. Words of encouragement, uplifting social media posts and an award soon followed.
"It was not only validating but heartwarming that they not only cared but enjoyed the stories I was doing," she said. "I took it to mean my stories meant something to the community. They meant a lot to me."
As she said that spring farewell on TV, two colleagues held her hands.
"I hope to be back soon," she said.
"You will be; you will be," one responded. "When you're back at full strength, you're going to be able to help others with this ... "
"No more tears," Alex George ended. "I'll see you guys soon."