In 2015, on the day before Thanksgiving, 13-year-old Alexis was told she had a mass in her abdomen.
Days later, after a biopsy, she and her family were told it was a rare form of ovarian cancer called ovarian dysgerminoma.
Over the next five months, Alexis underwent four grueling rounds of chemotherapy at St. Joseph’s, putting both her body and her spirit through the ringer. She lost her hair, and was at one point hospitalized with a high fever. “She went through long bouts where she couldn’t eat anything,” recalls her mother, Becky. “She had to receive nutrition through her port at one point because she had lost so much weight.”
A large part of what helped Alexis and her family get through it was the dedicated team of nurses, doctors, and specialists at St. Joseph’s Hospital who worked tirelessly to combat the cancer — in particular, her oncology team, Dr. Mark Mogul and Dr. Samantha Schaefer.
During her treatment, Alexis formed special bonds with them. “Dr. Mogul, from the beginning, helped my family understand what was happening, but he also revealed himself as a person to use,” she says. “He reached through the gaps and pulled out me and my personality even when no one else could.”
As patient and doctor got to know one another, they found they shared a common love of a certain literary wizard. “He and I share a ‘Harry Potter’ bond, and I could rely on him to talk to me about that and other things besides my diagnosis and my treatment. He takes the time to listen and to spend the time with his patients that not many other doctors in general can or make time for. I think, besides his medical expertise, his treatment is about the whole person: body, mind, and spirit.”
Dr. Schaefer was the other half of the oncology dream team. “Dr. Sam will do anything for a smile,” Alexis recalls fondly. “She cracks jokes, does funny dances — she is a very lighthearted doctor, and she truly wants to see her patients smile. Many times, in the beginning, I didn’t smile much because the treatments left me feeling very sick. Dr. Sam didn’t give up trying until she got even the smallest smile. Over time, we also bonded over ‘Harry Potter.’ Dr. Sam’s need to make people smile automatically makes me smile now.”
It was also during this time that Alexis’s mother, Becky, decided to reach out to Make-A-Wish, the nonprofit that grants wishes to children living with serious illnesses. The group wanted to do something special for Alexis, but first, she had to get through the chemo.
“The wish was such a blessing, because there were times during the inpatient chemo weeks, as the treatment effects accumulated, that she was inconsolable,” Becky says. “In those darkest moments, the one thing I could rely on to perk her up was to remind her that, even though it was terrible right then, she had this amazing opportunity to look forward to. Sometimes all she could do was smile a small smile and go back to sleep thinking about it.”
Between rounds, when she was feeling better, Alexis spent countless hours researching different places or things she might want to do. She thought about the lifesaving care that doctors Mogul and Schaefer had given her, and knew she wanted to do the same someday. “If other people have to go through what I went through, I want to be able to help them medically, but also to impress on those kids the same general upbeat and positive spirits that were shared with me,” she explains.
So Alexis asked Make-A-Wish for a trip to Oxford University where she hoped to take an Introduction to Medicine course. “I have always wanted to travel and England was on the list. The idea of studying medicine and being at a famous and prestigious university was very exciting. I was also very interested in seeing London. As noted, I really enjoy ‘Harry Potter,’ so all these things related were a big interest to me.”
The following summer, thanks to a donation by Bristol-Myers Squibb, she and her mother boarded a plane to England. Over the next two weeks, Alexis lived on the Oxford campus, attended classes, and of course, made time for plenty of sightseeing. When asked about her fondest memory of the trip, her response is immediate: “My favorite thing was the ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ play because I am an avid ‘Harry Potter’ fan and I had previously read all of the books, including the script for the play, so I was very excited to see the script come to life.”
But it’s thanks to the real-life magic of her medical team — and her own strong spirit — that Alexis is now 17 months out of recovery, having undergone surgery and a further two rounds of chemo. “Her scans continue to return clean, and we praise God for giving her doctors that knew what to do and when to do it,” says her mother. “She is a survivor, a warrior princess, even if she didn’t choose this as her battle.”
Kareem Yasin is a writer and editor at Healthline. Outside of health and wellness, he’s active in conversations about inclusivity in mainstream media, his homeland of Cyprus, and the Spice Girls. Reach him on Twitter or Instagram.