“I was a happy 17 year old girl who lost all my hair, basically my identity, and had my life pulled right from under me,” said Alexis Quance of her diagnosis with acute myeloid leukemia on December 14, 2012.
After about an hour of tears and asking “why me,” her attitude shifted.
In honor of Childhood Cancer Awareness Month we asked Alexis, now 21 and in her senior year of undergraduate studies, about her journey with pediatric cancer and how it has inspired her goals for the future.
A: I was really angry and confused at first. I cried and asked, “why me?” That only lasted about an hour and then I jumped right into the mindset of, “What do we do to fix this and how soon can we start? I have things I want to do with my life.”
Q: What did your treatment entail?
Aggressive treatment began on December 17 with a lumbar puncture, placement of a central line, and infusions of chemo, antibiotics and necessary blood products. My first round of chemo consisted of five different agents, lasted ten days and came with many complications and side effects.
A second biopsy identified a genetic deletion in my DNA, one never before seen in our nation. My diagnosis changed to high-risk status, and a more concentrated chemotherapy followed. Again, I experienced complications and side effects.
The third biopsy brought devastating results. The cancer was back, despite aggressive treatment. The third biopsy also revealed that I had underlying myelodysplastic syndrome (MDS), meaning my base stem cell was defective and predisposed me to cancer. So, no matter how much chemo I underwent or how many times I made it to remission, the cancer would always return.
Knowing this, my oncologists told me I needed a bone marrow transplant as soon as possible. To meet transplant requirements, I had to be in remission which meant another round of chemotherapy. After completing this round, which was categorized as an adult, high-risk and MDS treatment known as FLAG-IDA, I was technically in remission.
I went in to start my transplant process on May 7, 2013. This process involved another ten days of preparatory chemo, anti-rejection drugs, antibiotics and other medicines. My transplant was performed on May 17. While in recovery from the transplant, I went into multi-system organ failure and required life support consisting of ventilators, oscillators, dialysis and ECMO for 50+ days. My parents were informed that I only had a 40 percent chance of survival at best.
I went through months of occupational and physical therapy to regain my ability to breathe, talk, eat, use my hands, walk and do other basic things on my own again. A bone marrow biopsy performed in October 2013 showed that some of my own cells had returned, meaning that I needed six more months of chemotherapy. I finished my last chemo on April 11, 2014.
Q: Do you feel like you missed out on anything as a result of your diagnosis, treatment and recovery?
A: I feel like I missed out on a lot. There is not a single aspect of who I am that has not been affected by what I went through. I was a happy 17 year old girl who lost all my hair, basically my identity, and had my life pulled right from under me. I was a competition and sideline cheerleader at my high school, I was enrolled in all AP classes, I volunteered at a local emergency room two times a week, and I spent the remaining free time I had with my friends and family.
My family is very close and we also did a lot together on the weekends – exploring downtown Fredericksburg, going for bike rides, doing Warrior Dashes, going on adventures. All of these things were halted when my home went from the house where I lived with my family to the hospital rooms I would be treated in over the next two years.
Q: What do you feel are the positives that came out of your journey with pediatric cancer?
A: I would not have wanted or expected my life to take this path but, in a weird way, I’m kind of thankful it did. I’ve grown immensely. I have met some amazing people. I’ve seen which friends will be in my life forever and which ones weren’t meant to be. I have realized you can’t take anything for granted, no matter how small. I’ve become more in tune with my emotions and controlling them. I have changed my perspective and how I view things. I have realized, more specifically, what I see myself doing for the rest of my life.
Q: Did this experience prompt your desire to pursue a career in medicine?
My experience with cancer has, without a doubt, prompted my desire to pursue a career specializing in pediatric oncology and bone marrow transplantation. After all I’ve been through, I know I’ll be able to approach patients with a special point of view.
Q: What was your experience like this past summer working with Dr. Wiedl in the hem/onc clinic?
I absolutely loved working with my oncologist, Dr. Wiedl, on the “other side of the clinic.” It reinforced my desire to work in this field. I learned so much in the short two months I was there. Dr. Wiedl said she thinks I’ll be an amazing pediatric oncologist and after this experience I am even more motivated to accomplish this goal than I was before.
How has your or your child’s medical journey inspired you to make a difference?
RVA Cures Gallery: Alexis is featured in an exhibition that tells stories of children, caregivers and researchers in our community who are facing childhood cancer. Learn more: https://www.connorsheroes.org/events/rva-cures-gallery-opening