Rush to Crush Cancer

Alexa Claypool

Living for today.

In May 2018, 24-year-old therapist Alexa Claypool was enjoying a beach vacation. She came home with a tan…and a sore throat. When it didn’t get any better, she went to an ear, nose and throat specialist who prescribed a steroid antibiotic, which had no effect. Finally, she saw a UPMC ENT who told her that her tonsils were swollen. On July 2, Alexa had them removed. That was the beginning, not the end, of Alexa’s journey.

“Tonsils are supposed to just pull out cleanly, but mine fell apart,” recalls Alexa. The doctor said they were some of the biggest he’d ever seen. I wasn’t healing from the surgery, and although I was trying to convince myself things were getting better, they weren’t. A week later, I got a call from Hillman asking if I could be there by 10 o’clock.”

Alexa had a bone marrow biopsy and PET scan at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Hematologist Dr. Mounzer Agha saw that she had myeloid sarcoma in her tonsils, and quickly diagnosed her with acute myeloid leukemia. She was admitted to UPMC Hillman that night and started chemotherapy treatment the next day. After a four week stay, on August 7—Alexa’s birthday—she was told she was in remission. On August 25 Dr. Agha told Alexa her bone marrow was normal. She didn’t need a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. In remission ever since, Alexa sees Dr. Agha every three months and gets a bone marrow biopsy every six months.

“My family was super-supportive—my parents and Michael and his parents,” says Alexa. “I grew up really close with my dad but got even closer with him during my cancer journey. He’d come to my house after working the night shift, we’d go to breakfast, and then he would take me to get a blood transfusion or other treatment.”

“I couldn’t have asked for better care,” says Alexa. “The nurses at Hillman made me feel like a movie star every time I walked in. They went out of their way to make sure I had whatever I needed, and they were there for all the moments, good and bad.”

The doctors who treated Alexa also have a special place in her heart. “Dr. Anastasios Raptis was on rounds when I was in the ICU. He checked on me every morning, every evening, just to see how I was doing. He told me, ‘You have leukemia. You can be scared, or you can fight it.’  I said, ‘Alright, I’m going to fight it.’ He was on rounds a lot when I was there. He’s a big intimidating guy, but really, he’s a big soft teddy bear. Nobody gives a hug like him. I ran into him a few months later and it was so heartwarming how he acknowledged how far I’d come and how well I’ve been doing.”

The experience has changed Alexa. “I just live life now; I don’t care what other people think,” she says. “My mom was always okay with my tattoos, as long as they weren’t visible. After my diagnosis, I began to choose designs that had meaning to me, and I wanted to make sure they were in places that people would see. It’s just part of my new attitude toward life.” Two of those tattoos are related to her cancer journey: a Wonder Woman symbol joined with a cancer awareness ribbon, and “Not Today,” a reference to a Game of Thrones quote about death. Alexa’s brother—and even her mother—have also gotten ribbon tattoos.

Alexa’s journey has also changed her husband, Michael. The couple had been dating for less than two years before her diagnosis. Married Christmas Eve of 2021, the couple became engaged shortly before the COVID-19 outbreak. “Michael was always the cautious type… but he’s even more so now. During my treatment I got an infection and went septic; I was on a ventilator for six days. It was a scary time. For a while, my family didn’t think I’d pull through. My system was bottomed out from the chemo, and I wasn’t producing white blood cells. Michael made sure I sanitized my hands. He was all about making sure there were no germs in the house.”

Michael changed in another way: Never a dog person, as a way to celebrate Alexa’s first year of remission, he bought her dog they named Reggie, who sits at Alexa’s side as she does paperwork.

Alexa has this to say about UPMC Hillman’s upcoming Rush to Crush Cancer cycling event: “I know Dr. Agha has committed to doing the 60-mile course. He encourages me to exercise anyway, so if he tells me to get on a bike and participate, I may just shock him and show up.”

I couldn't have asked for better care. The nurses at Hillman made me feel like a movie start every time I walked in. They went out of their way to make sure I had whatever I needed, and they were there for all the moments, good and bad.

Alexa Claypool