Type: Peritoneal Mesothelioma
Survival: 10 years
Alexis was diagnosed with peritoneal mesothelioma in 2006. She is going strong thanks to top of the line treatment and a strong desire to keep fighting.
Story of a Strong-Willed Survivor
Alexis put everything she had into fighting her cancer and she is still here, eight years later, to inspire other patients battling mesothelioma.
Alexis was working two jobs in Houston, where she still lives, before she was diagnosed. She helped run a sales office during the week and worked in a boutique on the weekends. One thing that hasn’t changed is her appreciation for her husband who continues supporting and motivating her.
Getting the Diagnosis
Eventually the pain in her abdomen was too much to handle. One morning she woke up and knew going into work wouldn’t be an option that day, but she was also mistrustful of doctors. “I grew up not having a good relationship with any doctors,” she said.
Her husband took her to the closest hospital and within an hour she was admitted to the emergency room. The next day her gallbladder was removed, but the doctors also found a suspicious growth on her diaphragm.
The growth, which looked like “a tiny grain of rice,” was sent to a pathology lab to be evaluated. This tiny growth is the tumor that turned out to be the first sign of her mesothelioma. She was informed of the situation and given her prognosis.
Oddly, despite these findings, all subsequent X-rays, CT scans and PET scans showed no signs of cancer. This made it harder for her to find a specialist and set up a treatment plan.
Struggling to Find a Specialist
Alexis decided not to tell anyone she was diagnosed at first. “I had to pretend that nothing was bothering me, but people who know you best always see through,” she said. “Scans were clear, X-rays were blank, we didn’t know how to treat it. And that’s why we didn’t tell anyone about it.”
Alexis found her specialist through a stroke of luck.
Alexis’ boss’s hair stylist was engaged to the brother of Dr. Henry Zaleski, an oncologist at Methodist Hospital in Houston. He agreed to help and vowed to figure out a solution to her diagnosis. Dr. Sugarbaker, the top peritoneal mesothelioma specialist in the country, was contacted and agreed to work with Alexis’ doctor on her treatment plan.
Alexis' Treatment Plan
Cytoreductive surgery is a broad term for removing tumors throughout the abdomen. This includes tumors on the surfaces of organs in the abdomen as well as those found on the peritoneum, the lining of the abdomen from which peritoneal mesothelioma gets its name.
Cytoreductive surgery is not a new procedure and has been perfected over the years because it is the same surgery used for common abdominal cancers. What made Alexis’ treatment plan special was the addition of HIPEC.
HIPEC involves bathing the abdomen in chemotherapy that has been heated to a temperature deadly to mesothelioma cells. The chemotherapy is then drained out of the abdomen.
HIPEC has been contested by some in the medical community for being too aggressive, but survivors like Alexis attribute their survival to it. The procedure has risen greatly in use over the past decade. In 2002, approximately 400 procedures were performed each year. Ten years later, over 1,300 were being performed each year across the United States.
She had chemotherapy two months later. “Boy, did it make me sick,” said Alexis. “But I’m still here so whatever they did was right.”
Complications from Treatment
Traversing the path to survivorship isn’t easy and Alexis’ experience shows that. She has had some unforeseen complications in her treatment and her life.
One of the first complications she dealt with happened during her first surgery. Doctors nicked a nerve in her throat when she was intubated. This affected her vomit response and she had to have an additional surgery to correct it.
She also dealt with infections surrounding the sites on her abdomen where chemotherapy was administered. She admitted this was frustrating and depressing, but also that her nurses at her hospital were uplifting and supportive.
Chemotherapy wasn’t easy either. She only completed four out of six chemotherapy infusions because she was getting so sick.
Only a few months after returning from treatment, Alexis was laid off from her full-time job. This left her without insurance and she was forced to go four years without any kind of treatment. The passage of the Affordable Care Act allowed her to get her first checkup in years.
Despite the difficulties she had to face, Alexis’ response is simple:
Coping With Survivor's Guilt
“I’m grateful and excited to be here. I am very fortunate, lucky, blessed, whatever amazing adjective there is,” said Alexis.
Much of the guilt she feels developed because she had friends battling cancer when she was diagnosed who didn’t make it. “I know rationally everyone’s different, their situations are different, but I still feel bad that they had to go,” she said. “It’s a real challenge to not take those deaths quite so personally.”
Alexis has admitted it’s hard for her to deal with the guilt still, but it also fosters an appreciation for the time she has fought so hard for. “I would have never married my husband if it weren’t for that miracle that happened that I got to stay.”