Alexis Howerin was warming up for a Wesley field hockey game last October, when a normal self-check turned into a potentially life-saving moment.
"I was doing a self-examination before a game in October 2019 and I had felt a lump, and I was going to go to the doctor's. They called me and said 'hey, you guys can't come here, we had to cancel your appointment because we don't carry your insurance anymore.' So the next available appointment that I could get somewhere where they were accepting new patients was December 26, and that's when they felt the lump and thought it felt unusual so they sent me for further imaging. Because I'm so young, they can't do a mammogram on me, so they did an ultrasound, and saw something there that was suspicious, and sent me to get a biopsy."
After initially detecting that lump in October, the clock had now made it to January 31 of this year.
"I had some biopsies done, and it came back benign, but my doctor wasn't comfortable with that, so we did a surgery and got it removed, and then they sent it back for testing. It came back cancerous, and that's when the whole process started."
Alexis had Stage 2 Breast Cancer.
While all this was going on, the physical education major was still trying to focus on her junior year at Wesley.
"I tried not to worry about it too much because my semester was just starting for the spring, and it was a big semester for me. I not only had to focus on my health, but school was also a big priority for me."
Howerin was working on five-course schedule last spring, just to put her in position to take four classes this summer, getting her back on-track to graduate in 2021 with her class.
She said it became a balancing act.
"Making sure I was doing everything I needed to do in the class to stay on top of my grades and completing these classes I'd signed up for the spring that way everything could go smoothly during the summer--balance was definitely an issue once COVID hit in March. I was seven weeks ahead of everyone in the class back in the second week of March. I had surgery on March 18, and when I went out for surgery, I was done all of my classes."
She was ahead of the game, until the pandemic changed the style of her classes and put her behind once again.
"COVID hit, and then I had more and more assignments that were tacked on that were online. Trying to recover and balance school was definitely a challenge. I definitely found myself not having the energy, not having the time to complete the stuff, but knowing that if I was going to stick to my goals of graduating on time and becoming a teacher that I had to do what it takes."
As her March 18 double mastectomy approached, Howerin and her family started to realize that the early days of the pandemic meant typical protocols of families allowing to gather in the hospital while someone was having surgery were out the window.
"That kind of hit hard, I'm only 21. Who wants to go through a life-changing surgery that is going to affect you for God knows how long down the road, alone? March 18 I go in there, I wake up early in the morning and get myself prepared and walk into the hospital alone. I had to put on my big girl pants and say it's time to do this, it's now or never. It definitely had a huge impact and hit a soft spot because I don't do well with things like that. I'm afraid of needles and just going into that big surgery and do it alone and talk to my mom over the phone and not next to me, it definitely sucked."
Getting through the double-mastectomy was going to be a challenge, but like Linus van Pelt, Alexis has a secret weapon.
"I go everywhere on night trips with my blanket. It's a fleece blanket that has pearls that is my favorite. I brought that with me thinking I was probably going to stay the night after surgery. My surgeons, both my plastic surgeon [Dr. Lawrence Chang] and my regular surgeon [Dr. Wendy Newell] are phenomenal. They held my hand through it all; they promised me that everything would be okay. They helped comfort me by allowing me to have my blanket on the operating table. They were saying really nice things and rubbing my head before the anesthesiologist pushed the meds to put me to sleep so they could perform the surgery. Honestly, that was such a huge factor. When you go into the [operating room], it's nothing but a cold table, and it's very sterile in there, and intimidating, but I was in good hands."
It was a long day for Alexis, as she entered Bayhealth Hospital at 7 a.m., and by 4:30 p.m., she was already on her way home. After the pain medication began to wear off, the reality of her surgery became clearer.
"It all kind of hit at once. I wasn't comfortable after sleeping for a little bit. The pain started to hit me. I didn't feel good, and I ended up getting sick, but having my best friend, my mom, my sister, and my family there help me through it made it ten times easier."
Alexis was hardly out of the woods. After having both breasts removed, Alexis now had to deal with the chemotherapy drug adriamycin, known in the cancer community as the Red Devil in eight bi-weekly treatments.
"I lost my grandmother to colon cancer in 2015, and I was one of her primary caregivers. I knew that chemo wasn't going to be easy. Talking to my doctors they said that my age and health being an athlete was going to play a good rule in making it somewhat easier. I was nervous because I didn't want to be sick all of the time. I didn't want to be tired; I wanted to feel good; I wanted to continue going on with my normal life, and that wasn't the case at all. The first eight weeks was nothing but nausea, vomiting, tiredness, the loss of an appetite the first four nights after treatment, spending nights in the bathroom sleeping next to the toilet or sleeping with a bowl in my bed, it was definitely the worst eight weeks of my life."
The final twelve weeks of chemo were switched to Taxol, which had the effect of taking away Alexis' hair, but also proving to be far less taxing on her body.
"I felt great. I felt back to myself. I said this is a breeze, the worst is over. This 100-mile challenge that is going on in October, I completed this back in July when I was going through chemo. I challenged a few girls on the team to do it to get us in shape in case we were going to have a season and come back in the fall. I think it was the second week of treatment I was running 3 to 3.5 miles a night through the streets of Camden and feeling great, ready to take on the world."
It's that 100-mile challenge that Alexis started with her own team that has spread throughout the Division III field hockey community.
"I knew that 100 miles in 31 days sounds outrageous. Who thinks they can do that? You're really running a 5K every day, that's insane. Honestly, it can be done, and when you do it, it's such a great feeling of accomplishment and dedication to making yourself better. The fact that my team, my coach, our conference, teams around us, and teams that don't even play us are doing this challenge, it brings awareness to what we're trying to accomplish. We want to raise awareness to breast cancer and self-checks and education. There's no better way to bring that awareness other than to challenge people to do it, get out and run, get out there and check yourself. Once you do it and make it a habit, that's when it becomes easier."
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, and Alexis emphasized that her journey to beating cancer started with something that is simple and free, and that all women should do on a routine basis.
"Honestly, it was a life-saving check. I am 21-years-old. For women my age and a little bit older, they don't do mammograms unless you're pushing 40. If it wasn't for a self-check, I don't know where my life would be. Cancer doesn't discriminate. It doesn't care what your race is; it doesn't care how old you are; it doesn't care what you're doing with your life; it will take whoever it wants to take, and it will try to take you down. People my age can't go get what women are supposed to get to detect this, how are you going to know if you have cancer? How are you going to catch it early if you can't get a mammogram until you're 40? What if I didn't catch it until I was 40, then what? Would I be alive? Would it be in my lymph nodes? Would it travel through my body? Would it be some other form of cancer? To embrace self-check, it can save a life."
As for what's next, Alexis finished chemo on September 3, and recently had reconstructive surgery. She has 28 rounds of radiation to complete, when hopefully by the time the calendar turns to 2021, Alexis can say she is cancer free.
Academically, Alexis is midway through her first semester of senior year, with the hopes of progressing to a master's degree starting next fall.
While March's surgery was complicated by the pandemic, its postponement of Wesley's fall field hockey season might actually be a positive.
It is unknown if the Wolverines will play field hockey this spring, but the Caesar Rodney product is looking forward to the day she's back on the Miller Stadium turf again.
"It's going to mean the world to me. I'm working so hard to get back at it with my team, to get back in the weight room, to get on the field, and be back to my normal self. That hockey field is my life. It is my getaway, my escape, my peacemaker for anything in life. When I'm stressed out, I go to that field. Not having field hockey this fall has kind of sucked, but it is a big blessing for me because I can get back to where I was last fall and I can ball out with my girls, that's all that matters to me."
All because a simple pre-game check turned into a life-saving catch.