Beating Cancer in a Pandemic
Looking back on 2020, most would say “normal life” was interrupted around March with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But for Alexis Howerin, a local collegiate athlete and aspiring teacher, life as she knew it changed on Jan. 31 with a stage II breast cancer diagnosis. The pandemic only raised the stakes in her battle.
Howerin was 21 at the time and had just begun the spring semester of her junior year. “I thought my life was over,” she said. “I didn’t know much about cancer besides that it took my grandmother and I was terrified I would be next.”
In October 2019, Howerin noticed a lump in her left breast during a self-exam, but various obstacles postponed an OB-GYN visit until Dec. 26. “I’m young, so the mention of a lump really alarmed my doctor,” Howerin said. After imaging and a benign biopsy result that left doctors concerned, she was presented with three options—close follow-up care, another biopsy, or a lumpectomy. She chose the latter, and just days after surgery learned of her life-changing diagnosis.
“We’ve recently seen an increase in the number of younger women being diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Howerin’s Medical Oncologist and Bayhealth Cancer Institute Medical Director Rishi Sawhney, MD. “But even in those cases the women are in their 40s or 50s—sometimes 30s. A breast cancer diagnosis at 21 is extremely rare.”
Once the initial shock subsided, Howerin’s will to fight kicked in—the same determination that she exhibits on the field hockey field, in the classroom, and in life. “My daughter has always given 100% on and off the field,” said Becky Howerin, Alexis’ mom. “And she’s competitive—hates being beaten. She was determined to beat cancer.”
Howerin opted for a double mastectomy before starting therapies—a decision her care team empowered her to make. “Cancer is an intrusive and commanding disease that often leaves patients feeling out of control,” said Dr. Sawhney. “It’s important to me to help my patients feel in control again by educating them around their diagnosis and treatment options and allowing them the final say.”
On March 18, just days after the COVID-19 pandemic made its way to Delaware and hospital visitor restrictions were implemented, Howerin walked into the hospital alone for her procedure. Wendy Newell, MD, local general surgeon and breast specialist, performed the operation and sent her home the same day to recover with her family by her side.
In the months following, Howerin lived within the strict confines of a global pandemic and a severely compromised immune system—leaving the house only for treatments, doctor appointments and procedures. She credits her family and her field hockey teammates for getting her through what proved to be the toughest few months of her life.
“My team has been in my corner since day one,” said Howerin. “They constantly texted, called, mailed letters, sent flowers, and just lifted me up when I needed it the most.”
Howerin’s family did everything possible to ease her burdens—which meant getting creative when COVID-19 restrictions added obstacles. “I promised my daughter I would never leave her side,” Mrs. Howerin said. “The pandemic made it difficult sometimes, but we always found a way.”
When Howerin had to undergo 20 weeks of chemotherapy treatments, her family stayed connected with her virtually from the hospital’s parking lot. “This was the next best thing to being with her,” Mrs. Howerin said. “I could still talk to her and see her, and she and the staff knew I was just outside if she needed me.”
Both mom and daughter commended the Bayhealth Cancer Center staff for their care and patience in communicating with them every step of the way. Dr. Sawhney attributes this feedback to his dedicated and compassionate team. “My team knows that communication is one of the most important aspects of a quality patient experience, so when visitor restrictions were implemented, they pivoted to virtual without skipping a beat.” Since then, virtual visits, video chats during treatments, and even video conferences with multiple family members have become the norm.
Howerin rounded out her treatments with six weeks of radiation. As she walked out of the Cancer Center on her final day, her family and coach stood in the parking lot and cheered her on—she had won her fight against breast cancer!
Now over a year since Howerin’s diagnosis, she’s passionate about telling others her age to listen to their bodies. “Doing self-exams, knowing your family’s health history, and advocating for yourself when you know something doesn’t seem right, are important and could save your life,” said Howerin.
In the face of adversity—a cancer diagnosis and a global pandemic—Howerin won. And she plans to continue her winning streak on the field hockey field, in college and in her future career as a teacher.
Bayhealth’s oncology team is driven to deliver quality experiences like Howerin’s to all patients. Visit Bayhealth.org/Cancer to learn more.