Cancer Survivor Alex Swader Uses Dance to Help Others
It started with a bruise. Eight year old Alex Swader was competing in a national dance competition in July 2007, when his mom, Michele, hugged him and found a small knot on his back. Michele says, “It was the size of a pea and seemed like a bruise.” Three weeks later, the bruise was still there. Alex’s parents took him to see a pediatrician who initially diagnosed it as a type of benign tumor and told them to watch it for changes.
Three months later, the tumor began to grow rapidly and Alex was referred to a surgeon. In January 2008, the tumor was removed. Four days later, Michele received a call from the surgeon who told her that Alex would need to see an oncologist at Children’s of Alabama. Alex’s oncologist, Dr. Joseph Pressey, confirmed that the tumor was a type of cancer called Ewing’s sarcoma. Ewing’s sarcoma is a rare form of bone cancer typically found in children and adolescents. About 250 cases of Ewing’s sarcoma are diagnosed each year in the United States.
Alex says, “I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was something I could just take some medicine for and get better.” Michele says, “Dr. Pressey made Alex feel comfortable to ask questions. He was honest and open with us and was able to answer all of Alex’s many questions on a child’s level.”
At a time when Alex was focusing on his upcoming solo and competition team dance, everything had to be put on hold. Fortunately for Alex, no other tumors were found. His treatment included three surgeries and several months of chemotherapy. Each round of chemo meant that Alex would have to be hospitalized for several days and the treatments often made him sick and very tired. “I was scared about having the surgery,” Alex says, “but the nurses comforted me and tried to make my hospital stays fun.”
Alex tried not to let his diagnosis and treatment get in the way of his dancing. The day before his first chemotherapy treatment, he went to dance practice. Normally, Alex would dance front and center on his team, but in anticipation of changes in his schedule and energy level, he moved out of the front spot. It was frustrating for him, but Michele recalls, “He gave it his usual 110 percent.” Throughout his treatment, Alex continued to go to dance as much as he could. At times when he was too exhausted to dance, he would still sit and watch and try to learn the moves. It was frustrating for him to fall behind and, after his May recital, he finally took a short break from dancing.
Alex had his last dose of chemotherapy on August 5, 2008 and began several months of scans and tests to confirm that the tumor was gone and that he did not have any new tumors. By the time the treatments were over, he was sad to leave the nurses and staff because they had become “like family.” Finally, by January 2009, all of Alex’s scans came back clear and his cancer was officially in remission.
Remission was not the end of Alex’s fight against childhood cancer, only now he would fight it in a different way. His experience actually inspired him to give back to other children fighting cancer. According to Dr. Pressey, “As Alex recovered from his therapy, instead of simply walking away from Children’s and the oncology community, he chose to do quite the opposite. He engaged and encouraged patients by performing dance routines in the hospital lobby and gave away toy monkeys (he named them “chemo monkeys”) similar to the one he held near during his nauseating chemotherapy.”
In March 2009, Alex landed the role of a tap dancing grasshopper in the touring Broadway show Cirque Dreams Jungle Fantasy, which reignited his passion for dance. He decided to combine his passion for dance with his passion for helping other children with cancer and created a group called Dancers Fighting Cancer. Through dance-related fundraisers, Dancers Fighting Cancer raises money to support research for new therapies for childhood cancer and spreads awareness about childhood cancer.
Alex has now been cancer-free for four years and is a very busy 12-year-old. He is busy with dance, school and Dancers Fighting Cancer activities. Despite his busy schedule, he comes back to Children’s to support other children facing cancer. He received his “chemo monkey” from a childhood cancer survivor and wants to carry on that tradition for other children as they face treatment. Alex’s goal is to show these patients that he and others are thinking of them and praying for them. He says, “I want to tell them to stay strong and have faith in the nurses and doctors.”