A stomachache may be typical for a teenage girl just starting out as a cheerleader, but Alex Cervantes had more than just butterflies. During her first day of cheerleading practice in summer 2007, her pain was so excruciating that Cervantes, then 15, was rushed to a hospital near her San Gabriel, Calif., home.
|Alex Cervantes is moving ahead with life after her bout with cancer. (Photo courtesy of Alex Cervantes)|
Doctors assumed it was appendicitis. During surgery, though, they discovered she had a ruptured ovarian cyst that turned out to be a malignant germ cell tumor.
The years since have brought highs, lows and unforgettable experiences. They have forever changed a budding life. Like the 72,000 adolescents and young adults who develop cancer in the U.S. every year, the City of Hope patient has struggled to fight her disease while still seeking to understand who she is — and who she will become.
Today, Cervantes is a strikingly pretty 18-year-old with expressive brown eyes and closely cropped black hair. Now in remission, she feels more confident and empowered. But it was not always that way.
Ovarian germ cell tumors begin with malignancy in an egg. They are most common in teenage girls and young women and are generally curable when found and treated early. When she was initially treated, surgeons removed the growths and an ovary and called her treatment complete.
During the next few months, however, her mother Marie Cervantes grew concerned that her daughter should be monitored more closely, and she sought a second opinion. After imaging revealed the disease had spread, the girl was referred to another hospital, where she underwent surgery to remove tumors in her stomach.
She turned to City of Hope in October 2007, and three months later, City of Hope oncologic surgeon Mark Wakabayashi, M.D., performed surgery to remove scar tissue and take biopsies from other organs. In 2009, he and his colleagues removed 12 tumors from her abdomen, including one on her diaphragm and another on her liver.
Marie Cervantes remembers the relief when Wakabayashi dropped by her daughter’s hospital room late one night after a full day of surgery. Still in his scrubs, he had her daughter’s biopsy results: The tumors were benign.
Her scans have been clear for more than a year, so she and her doctors are cautiously optimistic.
The experience strengthened her bonds with her family, particularly her parents. Her father sat with her while she received platelets and “did all of the gross medical stuff,” she said, like changing intravenous bags, giving shots and fixing machines. “My mom also was there for me every step of the way,” Alex Cervantes said. “All the nights I slept there, she slept there, too, on the chair. She never left me alone. We grew so close and she would make me laugh on nights that were bad.”
Cervantes also had a teen’s dream come true: she met actress Cameron Diaz, who was visiting City of Hope to research her role as the mother of a teenage cancer patient in the movie “My Sister’s Keeper.” Cervantes later landed a small role as a cancer patient in the film.
Today, Cervantes focuses on the time directly before her, and tries not to think too far ahead. Still, like other teenagers, she is tackling the challenges of schoolwork. She is enthusiastic about her dance class at Pasadena City College and plans to try out for the school’s cheerleading squad.
She wishes people would be more sensitive to cancer patients. “When people hear you have cancer, they automatically think you’re going to die,” she said. “That’s not true at all!”
Cancer is especially hard on teens, she said. “You’re still growing and don’t know who you are, or who your friends are, and you don’t have confidence. People need to be more aware of that.”
Cervantes’ mother Marie tearfully recalls the day she first took her daughter to City of Hope, and pediatric oncologist Clarke Anderson, M.D., said, “You’re going to live to be a little old lady.”
Said Marie Cervantes: “After we left his office, Alex said, ‘Mommy, that’s the first time I thought I was going to live.’”