For a boy not quite 6 years old, Alex Myers was insatiably curious about his diagnosis -- acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common form of childhood cancer. His parents explained that the cells in his body were dividing so much that the doctors needed to use a "special medicine" to stop them.
"So, if those cells keep dividing and dividing, could I explode?" The possibility fascinated him.
At the same time, the Oakmont boy sought assurances he wouldn't die. His father told him his doctors would make him better. Then why weren't his prayers being answered? Alex's mother promised that God was listening.
He was comforted by his parents' explanations, but also found solace when crawling into bed with his 9-year-old sister, Tyler. He felt even more secure when clutching his doll, Bobby, during spinal taps and bone marrow procedures. At those times, Alex sang his original song:
"I got my blood taken. I got my blood taken. I got my blood taken. And it didn't even hurt."
These are just a few of my own snapshots of the wiry, inquisitive little boy I first met in 1997, when he was starting a three-year chemotherapy protocol at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh. Alex and his parents, Sharon and Paul Myers, allowed Post-Gazette photographer Andy Starnes and me to chronicle their lives as they learned to cope with a child's serious illness.
It wasn't easy. Persistently small for his age with a delay in muscular development caused by some of the chemotherapy drugs, Alex had to be careful when his platelet (blood clotting) counts didn't rebound immediately.
Children's oncologist Dr. Jean Tersak set limits on his favorite sports, including football and skateboarding. "Those are the sports I thought I wanted most," he recently recalled. He became both the class clown and class loner. "I realize now I wasn't very confident."
By the time Alex's treatment ended, Sharon and Paul had separated and were later divorced (both have since remarried). The strain of dealing with a health crisis can sometimes bring to the surface other differences in a relationship.
That was then.
Last Thursday, Alex, who turns 18 on Aug. 3, graduated from Riverview High School in Oakmont with plans to major in history at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College, this fall. A consistent, medal winner in numerous WPIAL track meets, he also looks forward to joining the school's track team.
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- Modern therapies improve survival rate for acute lymphoblastic leukemia
- Living with childhood leukemia means tears, frustration and affirming faith
- When patients and parents ask "Why?"
- As parents tend a sick child, healthy siblings feel left out
- At Christmas, the family of a boy with leukemia reflects on their struggle and source of strength
- What science has learned from treating leukemia patients like Jim Stewart gives Alex Myers a better chance
- Beating cancer, Alex Myers graduates, proves research offers hope
"Alex demonstrated to his family and friends how much persistence counts," says his coach, Bobby Ostrowski. "He went from back-of-the-pack to top-place finisher in so many ways."
Stretching to almost 6 feet with a mop of curly hair, Alex dotes on his beloved dog, Odin; earns spending money (including enough to take his girlfriend to the prom) as a busboy at a local Oakmont restaurant; hangs out in a messy bedroom overflowing with Pittsburgh Penguins memorabilia; enjoys a playfully competitive relationship with Tyler, now a 21-year-old senior at Carnegie Mellon University; and revels in the regular houseful of friends, including step-siblings, Steven, 18, and Emily, 21. His twin half-siblings, Spencer and Audrey, 3, adore him.
For more than a year after treatment ended in 2000, he returned every three months for checkups. Then for several years, every six months. Now it's once a year.
Alex's physicians will continue to monitor what Dr. Tersak describes as an "insult to his liver" -- long-term, moderately low platelet counts "that he will need to tell his doctor when he is 50, 60 and 70 years old."
The teen says he remembers little from the early treatment years -- "I guess I just blocked out the terrifying parts" -- but he never doubted his parents' promise that he would get better, no matter what. They knew they had science on their side.
Cancer may be the second-leading cause of death in children under the age of 15 (behind accidents), but thanks to major strides in research, the survival rate keeps climbing, creating a new emphasis in long-term, follow-up care. Alex is now among 270,000 childhood cancer survivors throughout the United States who are college age.
He is participating in a long-term Children's Hospital program that teaches childhood cancer survivors how to manage their own health, long-term, as well as a children's survivor study with 14,000 kids from 27 pediatric institutions.
Sitting at home on the back patio a few days before graduation, Alex and I talk about how grateful we both are for scientific research. In an odd parallel, I received my own diagnosis of cancer just a few months ago. Doctors found two lumps in my left breast, one being a very aggressive type of cancer. I'm now going through chemotherapy.
When Alex was diagnosed in 1997 with ALL, which affects the lymphoid cells, chances of survival ranged from 85 to 95 percent. Only two decades earlier, the diagnosis was a death sentence, says Dr. A. Kim Ritchey, chief of Children's Division of Pediatric Hematology/Oncology.
I tell Alex: "I know -- as it was with you -- I'm going to get better because they've found a drug known to successfully attack the kind of cells they found."
"Yeah, amazing, isn't it?" says Alex. "You'd think I'd want to become a doctor or some kind of scientist. But none of this stuff is enough for me to want to major in science or math, or be a doctor. I'm not even absolutely sure about history. My folks think I'm good at that, and maybe I will be. But maybe I'll find something else I like."
His parents acknowledge they can't stop worrying about their son. "Yet, he keeps impressing me that he really can take care of himself," his dad says.
"I guess it's all about growing up."
Ellen Mazo, former Post-Gazette reporter, is director of Government Affairs at Children's Hospital. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . To read installments of the original series "Coping with a Child's Illness" go to www.post-gazette.com and do a search on Alex Myers.