CHARLOTTESVILLE — When David Alexander III opted to stop his cancer treatments last month, he wasn’t giving up on his life. He was making sure he could live it to the fullest.
Alexander, a junior at Handley High School in Winchester and former college lacrosse prospect, passed on an aggressive surgery that would have amputated most of his lower body, required long hospitalizations and continued chemotherapy, and only had about a 25% chance of saving his life.
Instead, Alexander is using the time he has left to focus on the things he loves, and that love him back — family, friends and lacrosse.
“My doctors were basically saying I was going to pass either way,” Alexander said this week. “I don’t like saying I gave up. I’m having a better rest of my life, having a more comfortable, family-filled life than having a hospital life.”
Fresh off a family vacation to Florida, the 17-year-old Alexander — who is wheelchair-bound and still in constant pain due to his cancer — will be at Saturday’s Virginia lacrosse game against Air Force, a guest of the Cavaliers.
Alexander started playing lacrosse as a fourth grader and first fell in love with UVA when he attended a lacrosse camp there three years later. By his sophomore year at Handley he had begun drawing recruiting interest from Division II and III programs.
He was on the drive home from a tournament in Delaware when the pain in his left hip, which had plagued him for some time, became unbearable. After initially being misdiagnosed with a a pinched sciatic nerve, Alexander received the diagnosis — chondroblastic osteosarcoma.
It is a rare cancer of bone and cartilage that normally attacks limbs.
“This cancer eats through bone and replaces it,” said Alexander. “For me, it is right by my spine and my hip, where all the nerves go for your leg. There really isn’t a cure for it, besides just taking it out. We’re kind of stuck in the mud right now for what people can do with this type of cancer.”
He underwent 10 excruciating weeks of chemo treatments, the last coming shortly after Christmas. The course was unsuccessful. Alexander and his family met with a surgeon at Johns Hopkins in Baltimore. She proposed the surgery.
“It would be completely taking off my hip, taking off my left leg, along with my crotch and my backside. I’d have tubes going through my stomach to go to the bathroom and I’d have another leg that might not work,” he said. “And If you don’t get it all out, it’s just going to keep growing. Even if you get it down to the smallest little cell, it’ll just grow again.”
Alexander chose to end his treatments and live out his remaining days managing his pain. In that option, Alexander saw something the more aggressive surgical plan didn’t offer. He saw good days.
Good days, he said, are what make his life worth living. Good days like the week he spent with his family in Florida, visiting Disney World, Sea World and Universal Studios. Good days like the one the travel-weary family spent in the middle of that week, just lounging around the pool, enjoying their time with each other.
And they’re days like Saturday, when Alexander will get to be a part of the lacrosse team he dreamed of one day playing for.
During Thursday’s practice, UVA’s players and coaches carried a bead with them. At Saturday’s game, they’ll present the beads, along with hand written notes of encouragement, to Alexander.
It’s part of a program called Beads of Courage which aims to connect child cancer patients around the country with athletes, entertainers and other prominent people.
Virginia got involved with Beads of Courage thanks to transfer attackman Charlie Bertrand, whose mother, Susan, works with the program.
The cause is deeply personal to the Bertrands. Susan’s sister — Charlie’s aunt — died of cancer 18 years ago at age 30. Charlie was six.
He’s been around and involved with the central New York foundation his mother started in her honor, Maureen’s Hope, ever since.
“He’s understood giving back and the importance of it since a young age,” said Susan. “If you’re ever having a bad day, or feeling down or depressed, the best thing you can do for yourself is to do something for somebody else.”
It was through her foundation that Susan started working with Beads of Courage, helping find children’s hospitals to launch the program in and, when possible, pairing them with sponsors. It costs about $10,000 to bring the program to a new location.
UVA was already a Beads of Courage hospital, but when Charlie transferred from Merrimack to Virginia, it connected the lacrosse program with the cause.
Alexander was still at UVA’s hospital receiving treatment when he first connected with the Cavaliers. Virginia’s team even visited Alexander for his birthday in November, having cake and celebrating at the temporary home in the Charlottesville area his family lived in during his treatment.
The team’s beads, however, were going to go to the program to be dispersed nationwide to patients — until the players learned of Alexander’s decision to stop treatment and his prognosis.
Coach Lars Tiffany told them after a recent practice. At that point, the players asked if all their beads and notes could go to Alexander.
“It’s about to be a tough period for him,” said Bertrand. “We figured that not only would it mean a lot to him to be able to read all these notes, but it would also mean a lot to the guys on the team having met him in the fall.”
Alexander is beyond appreciative of Virginia’s embrace of him, and of the charity organizations like Beads of Courage, the Make It Better foundation, which set up the family’s trip to Florida, and the Give Kids the World Village, which hosted the Alexanders during their stay.
But the reason Alexander shares his story, he said, is to try to raise awareness and funds for research. He hopes his efforts might help eventually lead to a cure, so another child won’t be faced with the choice he had to make. Maybe the next child will grow up and fulfill his or her dream of playing college lacrosse.
Alexander isn’t shy about discussing his situation, his decision or the inevitably of his future. He and his family are prepared to move him to hospice care in Winchester when his condition deteriorates.
In his darkest moments, Alexander worries that he’s quitting his fight, accepting the end. On days like Saturday, when people he’s only known for a short period applaud his bravery, it’s easier for him to see what they see — the courage in choosing to get the most out of his remaining time.
“I will be passing. There’s nothing I can do about what’s going to happen to me,” he said. “So I might as well have fun and make the most of what time I have left.”
Find out more
David Alexander III and his family have a website for people who wish to contribute to his medical expenses. You can find the websites of Beads of Courage and the Maureen’s Hope Foundation at Richmond.com.