MD Anderson inspires young lung cancer patient to become a nurse
Alexa DiVenere was 17 years old when doctors removed her right lung and pericardium, the protective membrane surrounding her heart.
In high school, Alexa played soccer and the flute, and was a drum major in the band. But during her junior year, those activities began leaving her short of breath with pressure in her chest.
A visit to the doctor revealed devastating news. Alexa had stage IV lung cancer.
“It was such a shock and really unexpected,” Alexa recalls.
She began receiving chemotherapy at a hospital near her home in Chicago.
“Having cancer was like nothing I've ever experienced before,” she says. “The cancer diagnosis is devastating, and not just for me. I was seeing the reactions of everyone around me and feeling everything my family felt and everything my friends felt.”
After months of lung cancer treatment didn’t work, Alexa’s father began researching other options. That led the family to bring her to see MD Anderson’s experts.
Nurses’ compassion after lung cancer surgery inspires a career path
At MD Anderson, thoracic surgeon David Rice, M.D., removed Alexa’s lung and surrounding tissues to try to save her life.
“That was a really hard time in my life,” says Alexa. “But I had so many amazing nurses and doctors at who helped me so much.”
Alexa remained in the hospital more than a week. She was inspired by the way her nurses and doctors supported her through the physical and emotional difficulties ahead.
“They're focused on you as a person, and they're focused on fighting the disease. But they also show so much kindness and compassion,” she says. “I really appreciated the genuine caring and light that they showed me.”
That experience in the hospital inspired Alexa to become a nurse.
“I realized I wanted to help other people the same way my nurses helped me,” she says.
After additional treatment, lung cancer spreads
After surgery, Alexa began receiving proton therapy to target the remaining cancer cells that could not be removed. After six weeks of this high-dose radiation therapy, Alexa was declared cancer-free. She finished high school and began nursing school.
A little over a year later, a follow-up scan revealed Alexa’s cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, the small, bean-shaped structures that help the body fight disease. Because there are hundreds of interconnected lymph nodes throughout the body, cancer cells can break away from a tumor and travel through the lymph system to other sites in the body. Alexa began chemotherapy again, but remained determined to continue her nursing courses.
“After classes, I’d fall asleep on a bench outside the classroom,” she says. “But I had this goal in mind of becoming a nurse and that's what really drove me to keep showing up to classes and pressing on, despite how I felt.”
Clinical trial offers targeted therapy option
During one of Alexa’s check-ups at MD Anderson, head and neck specialist John Heymach, M.D., Ph.D., recommended she undergo genetic testing. If the test found that a genetic mutation caused her lung cancer, she could stop chemotherapy and be matched with a cancer drug that would target her specific mutation.
Alexa agreed to be tested, and that decision changed the course of her treatment: genetic testing revealed she had a rare genetic mutation known as a RET fusion, which qualified Alexa for several clinical trials.
“RET fusions are seen in only 1-2 % of non-small cell lung cancer. Patients living with RET-positive lung cancer represent an underserved population in need of personalized targeted therapies,” says Vivek Subbiah, M.D.
After the cancer became resistant to one study’s drug and Alexa developed a tumor on her breast, she began a new targeted therapy drug called selpercatinib, or LOXO-292.
“Selpecatinib is the first FDA-approved selective RET inhibitor that is designed to targeted these RET fusions. This was made possible by patients like Alexa volunteering to enroll in the clinical trial,” says Subbiah, who leads the LOXO 292 clinical trial. “The meaningful outcomes observed in patients and the ‘gift of time’ for patients enrolled in this trial reinforce the value of this precision medicine in treating RET-positive NSCLC.”
Gratitude for clinical trials
“That was the miracle, getting on these clinical trials,” says Alexa.
The tumor in Alexa’s breast began to shrink within a month of beginning LOXO-292. She was also nearly symptom-free on the new targeted therapy drug. Her hair grew back, her skin cleared, her nausea and vomiting ceased and her cancer began to decrease more and more with each new scan.
“I think a lot of people can relate to scan anxiety and the fear of the future, the fear of leaving your loved ones behind,” she says. “So finding drugs that work is just beautiful. It is beautiful that scientists at MD Anderson have the technology and the resources that can make possible what was impossible before.”
Virtual visits allow continued clinical trial participation during COVID-19 pandemic
Alexa has finished school and now works as a mental health nurse in Illinois.
Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she’s continued participating in the LOXO-292 trial remotely. She has monthly virtual visits with Subbiah, and her medication is delivered to her door.
“I know it brings relief to a lot of vulnerable people that they don’t have to leave their homes to get to still get their lifesaving medicine,” says Alexa. “I’m so glad and feel blessed that they were able to do that for me.”
She is thankful that, despite the pandemic, she can continue working with the doctors who changed her life. “MD Anderson has saved my life over and over these last nine years,” says Alexa. “The doctors and nurses at MD Anderson are the reason why I wanted to become a nurse: to help people through the hardest times. I want to bring the spirit of MD Anderson wherever I go. I want to be that light in the world, like MD Anderson has been for me.”