BRANDYWINE - As a high school freshman, Alexandria Herndon flew into the air doing back handsprings and tucks as a cheerleader.
However, doctors diagnosed Herndon with osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor, during her freshman year at Gwynn Park High School, cutting her cheerleading career short. Still, her peers say, the junior is still the best cheerleader at the school.
“I’ve never kept my head down,” Herndon said. “I’ve had a positive attitude since day one.”
On Wednesday night, the school held a celebration called “Golden Day” in her honor. The school sold buttons and t-shirts to raise funds to help pay Herndon’s medical bills. People packed the cafeteria, donating food and drinks. Music from the high school’s band filled the room, and the dance team and cheerleading squad each performed.
“I’m speechless,” Herndon said with a smile. “Who can say your high school raised money for your medical bills and threw you a celebration?”
Ironically, cheerleading is what led Herndon to discovering she had cancer. After making the cheerleading squad, Herndon’s left leg would swell repeatedly. Icing the leg and resting had no effect on the swelling.
“Her leg swelled up to the size of a balloon,” said Kim Christian, the school’s cheerleading coach.
Christian urged Herndon’s family to get her leg checked out.
An MRI scan revealed Herndon had a tumor in her knee. Doctors removed the tumor and placed a titanium rod in her knee, said Herndon, who now has to use crutches.
“Life changed really dramatically,” Herndon said. “I wanted to do cheerleading, basketball, other sports. I ended up not being able to do everything I wanted to do.”
After a short remission, doctors again diagnosed Herndon with cancer again, this time in her lungs.
The lows of having cancer include undergoing chemotherapy treatment, and the sickness that comes with it, Herndon said. Sometimes, she has to miss school because of the treatment. Still, she remains positive.
“I think of the good out of everything,” Herndon said. “Live life as it is.”
Herndon now helps manage the school’s cheerleading squad. She said watching the team perform gives her motivation.
“I’ve seen what cancer can do to the spirit,” said Christian, who watched her own father battle cancer. “But Alexx, she’s a fighter. Her energy is our motivation.”
Gayle Coles, Herndon’s grandmother and guardian, said Herndon’s positivity makes it easier for the family to cope.
“When she goes through the tough times, the pain and effects of the chemo, then you know, of course your heart hurts,” Coles said. “But you have to keep up the positivity, even when she’s a little down, so she won’t fall into that trap as well.”
Herndon’s classmates said they sometimes find it hard to believe she has cancer.
“She’s outgoing and goofy,” said Temia Mitchell, a junior. “You’d never know what she’s going through.”
Donetello Kelley-Jones, a junior, said the diagnosed surprised her.
“She’s always happy,” Kelly-Jones said. “She always keeps her head above water.”
PTSA President Pamela King-Williams, a breast cancer survivor, helped organize the school event because she wanted to give Herndon hope.
“It’s a tough thing to go through,” King-Williams said. “I was 30 years old at the time. I can’t imagine being 16 years old. She’s such a sweet, beautiful child. I hope this event encourages her and her family.”
Herndon, who is thinking of going into the medical field, said she is confident she will win her fight.
“I’ve beat it once, I can beat it again,” Herndon said.