In February 2020, 18-year old Alejandra Hernandez had just a few months left of her senior year at George Ranch High School. She was a straight-A student, she played clarinet in the band and she was looking forward to graduation in just a few months. But all those plans came to a screeching halt right before spring break when her family noticed something wasn’t quite right.
“We were at her grandma’s funeral, when her grandpa, my dad, noticed she was looking pale,” said Alejandra’s father, Rogelio (Roy) Hernandez, Jr. “We were so used to seeing her every day that we didn’t even notice at first, but something was clearly wrong.”
Roy and his wife, Diana, took Alejandra to see the family’s primary care doctor where she underwent a number of blood tests.
“When the bloodwork came back, the doctor said we needed to drop what we were doing and rush her to the emergency room. Her blood count was at 3 when it should be at 11,” Roy said. “They gave her three pints of blood and admitted her into Memorial Hermann Sugar Land hospital to figure out what was wrong.”
After undergoing an MRI, doctors performed a colonoscopy and found that Alejandra was suffering from stage II colon cancer.
“I was shocked. I didn’t really have any symptoms,” Alejandra said. “It was all happening so fast, and I didn’t know what was going on. All I know is that I was extremely sad.”
Colon cancer generally starts out as a cluster of cells known as polyps. These polyps can turn into cancerous cells over time. According to the American Cancer Society, if caught early and the cancer has not spread outside of the colon, the survival rate is over 90%. Colon cancer is the fourth most common cancer among both men and women.
At stage II, colon cancer has most likely grown through the wall of the colon, and sometimes into nearby tissue. It can be treated with surgery to remove the section of the colon containing the cancer and nearby lymph nodes. The majority of colorectal cancers occur in people older than 50, though it can happen at any age. However, it is very rare for people under age 25.
Unfortunately for Alejandra, cancer runs in her family. She has had five family members pass away from the disease; the majority of those from colon cancer. Additionally, her mother, at 20 years old, went through a procedure after doctors found small, noncancerous polyps in her colon.
Dr. Amit Agarwal, an associate professor in the Department Of Surgery with McGovern Medical School at UTHealth Houston and a colorectal surgeon with Memorial Hermann, told Alejandra and her family that the best course of treatment would be for her to undergo a colectomy, a surgery to remove part of her colon.
“We were told not to wait. We decided to go in that weekend for the surgery. It was one of the worst weeks I’ve ever had,” Roy said.
Dr. Agarwal performed the six-hour surgery on March 7, 2020, just days before COVID-19 changed everyone’s lives. The good thing for Alejandra was that her entire family and her teachers were able to visit her in the hospital while she recovered over the next 11 days.
After surgery, Alejandra was sent to Dr. Sanjay Sethi, a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Sugar Land and affiliated with Memorial Hermann. For the next several months, Alejandra went through 12 extensive chemotherapy treatments under Dr. Sethi’s care. One three-hour treatment every couple of weeks. All the while, she coordinated with her teachers and administrators at Lamar Consolidated ISD to ensure she would pass her final classes.
“She had an “A” average, but she was too weak to be able to attend her own high school graduation,” Roy said. “Thankfully she could see it live online.”
She stayed the course until completing her final cancer treatment on September, 27, 2020, where she got to ring the bell with her father there to film it. A couple of months later on New Year’s Eve, she had her second major operation to reconstruct her small intestine and then, right before Christmas, 2021, she and her family received the best news of all – she was cancer-free.
“It was a great feeling,” said Alejandra. “The whole situation was frightening. My advice for anyone going through this is that it will be scary, but you can get through it.”
Alejandra will still need to continue with regular checkups and tests with her doctors in the coming years. She is now taking it easy, and considering options for college. She sees a bright future ahead, including pursuing her passions of photography and art, all with the support of her parents, younger brother, family and friends. She and her father are happy the worst is behind them and they are grateful for the team that helped pull her through.
“The doctors we had were awesome, as were the nurses. All of them. Best people I have ever met. I knew they were going to take care of her. I would love to thank the nursing staff, emergency nurses and ICU. I can’t thank them enough. They are the ones who made it great. They were outstanding,” Roy said.
If you’d like to learn more about colorectal cancer, support and treatments, visit https://www.memorialhermann.org/services/conditions/colon-cancer.