Granted one wish, Alex Myers, who was sick, picked a swimming pool.
His mother said no. Their home in Oakmont, near Pittsburgh, was on a slope.
A dog, then, he said.
His mother shook her head.
“No,” she said. “You’re 6.”
They settled on a trip to Walt Disney World. The whole family went. They stayed in a fake gingerbread house, in a neighborhood set aside for Make-A-Wish kids. They ate breakfast every day with Mickey Mouse. And in the park, Myers wore a special pin that allowed him to go to the front of the line for any ride.
He’d earned it. At the time, Myers, now 20 and an accounting major at Penn State Behrend, had cancer. The diagnosis—acute lymphoblastic leukemia—could have been a death sentence.
The disease occurs when a person’s bone marrow produces too much of a certain kind of white blood cell. That leads to anemia, joint pain, infection, and uncontrolled bleeding. One of every five children with the disease dies.
Myers knew he was sick. He bruised easily. His food tasted funny.
“I remember being tired all the time,” he says.
He asked his father if he was going to die.
“No,” his father told him. “They’re going to make you better.”
It took three years. The drugs made his face swell. His comb pulled out clumps of hair. He spent first grade at home, with a tutor.
“As a 6-year-old, I don’t know that you can really wrap your head around something like that,” he says.
He beat it, though. The leukemia cells disappeared.
He’s fit now: 6 feet, 1 inch tall and 165 pounds. He has a runner’s build. That comes from the cancer.
“My parents pushed me to be active,” he says.
The doctors warned against too much contact. Football was out. Hockey, too. For a time, he ran track, but the oval bored him. “I don’t like hamstering around a track,” he says.
Cross-country proved a better fit. Myers stayed with it, through high school and three years of college. Last year, as a junior, he was named captain of Penn State Behrend’s cross-country team, an honor he hopes to hold again this fall.
“He’s not our fastest guy,” says Greg Cooper, the team’s coach. “But he’s a hard worker, and he wants to make the team better. He really takes that leadership role to heart.”
You see it at the hospital as well. Even now, more than a decade after he got better, Myers signs in for an appointment with the child-cancer doctor.
It’s a children’s hospital, so it’s awkward: When Myers lies back and braces for the needle, his legs hang over the edge of the table.
“I’m like three feet taller than everyone in there,” he says.
He goes anyway. He sees the bigger picture, where kids are still sick, and where doctors need options. So he lies back. Awkward or not, it feels like the right thing to do.