Alexandria (“Alex”) Cervantes was in cheerleading practice in 2007 when the excruciating stomach pains began. The 15-year-old was rushed to a hospital near her San Gabriel home for what surgeons believed would be a routine appendectomy. Instead, they found a ruptured ovarian cyst that turned out to be a malignant germ cell tumor. Removing the growths and an ovary, they called the treatment complete.
Alexandria Cervantes, left, with actress Sofia Vassilieva from “My Sister’s Keeper.” (Photo courtesy of Alexandria Cervantes)
That, however, was just the beginning.
She later learned the disease had spread and underwent surgery at another hospital to remove stomach tumors, finally arriving at City of Hope in October 2007. There, she met pediatric oncologist Clarke Anderson, M.D.
“He was the first one who gave me hope,” Cervantes recalled. “He said, ‘You’re going to live to be a little old lady.’”
She also came under the care of Mark Wakabayashi, M.D., M.P.H., chief of the Division of Gynecologic Oncology. Over the years, he removed benign tumors and cysts from her abdomen, diaphragm, liver and remaining ovary.
Cervantes says her experience deepened her bond with her family – especially her parents – and even led to a brief foray into show business. While undergoing treatment at City of Hope, she met actress Cameron Diaz who was researching her role as the mother of a teenage cancer patient in the film “My Sister’s Keeper.” Cervantes landed a small role in the movie as a cancer patient.
These days, the busy 21-year-old returns to City of Hope for regular check-ups, works part-time at a local mall, and is a full-time student at Pasadena City College, where she's taking general education classes and also performing – and choreographing – dances for recitals.
We asked Cervantes to look back at the time of her diagnosis and to ask herself what she knows now that she wishes she'd known then. What wisdom, soothing words, practical tips or just old-fashioned advice would she give her newly diagnosed self?
1. DO NOT eat your favorite foods when you are on chemo or have just come off of chemo – you may ruin them forever. I sadly can never eat tuna anymore because I just see it all over my father’s shirt!
2. When your mouth tastes like nothing but metal and blandness, eat hot Cheetos and Lucas. It's the only thing that tastes good. You can buy Lucas at Mexican markets or at the sweet factory at the mall, and it’s cheap!
3. Embrace your baldness! Please! Looking back, that's the one thing I wish I would have done. I always hid beneath my caps, and I wish I hadn't. It only shows your ultimate strength, especially for all you young women out there. People will admire you, and those who do not understand are not worth your presence anyway.
4. Your family is your biggest supporter. I know sometimes they can seem smothering or annoying because on chemo your tolerance is zero, but they are going through what you are going through, too. Just from a different view. They love you, and let them help. It makes them feel better.
5. NEVER be afraid to speak up. If you are uncomfortable with something or are in pain tell someone! You are never bothering them. That's what I always thought, but the staff at City of Hope is there to help YOU and make YOU comfortable. Since you are already in a pretty sucky situation, that's all that counts.
Note from Cervantes: "I know I was suppose to only have five but I couldn't resist the last one!"
6. Go to Disneyland in a wheel chair! It's so much fun and you get in front on all the rides!