The Ernest Righetti High School varsity girls’ soccer team crossed the street on Feb. 6 to whoop St. Joseph High School 2-0. It was a bruising blow for the Knights, who are jockeying with Atascadero and SLO high schools for a spot in the league playoffs.
Some of the people in the bleachers were talking about Jan. 16, the last time St. Joe’s went cleat-to-cleat with their neighbors. Righetti had trailed during the first half but came back to win in overtime. Nobody, however, was talking about the loss.
Jan. 16 was an auspicious day: Lexi Brown, an 11-year-old cancer patient “adopted” by the Knights girls’ soccer team and St. Joseph’s Make-A-Wish club, had received the results of her most-recent scans after a brutal half-year of radiation and chemotherapy. And, for now, Lexi is cancer-free.
“Even though we lost that game,” said Sarah Chartier, who plays defense and is president of the Make-A-Wish club at St. Joseph’s, “and it was a heartbreaking loss, that was the real win for everyone—that Lexi is clear of cancer for now.”
But that wasn’t the case in the spring of 2013. Lisa Brown was massaging her daughter Lexi’s leg after a soccer match when she felt a lump on the outside of her left thigh. Doctors thought it might be an old hematoma. Lexi is active, plays soccer for the Orcutt Crusaders Football Club, and loves horseback riding; the lump could have been from either activity.
A year later, that lump was still there, and it was beginning to hurt. Lexi’s doctor ordered a battery of tests. At the hospital, she endured positron emission and computer axial tomographs—or certain types of body scans that look for diseases. A pathologist scrutinized a biopsy of the tissue under a microscope. The lump was a tumor about 13 centimeters across, and it was malignant. On July 2, 2014, the Brown family got the diagnosis: fibroblastic sarcoma, a cancer of the connective tissue.
Lexi underwent surgery at the City of Hope National Medical Center in Los Angeles. Surgeons sliced into her leg and scraped what they could off her femur—what Lisa called “a major re-sectioning” of Lexi’s thigh. The tumor was identified as being made up of two distinct parts. One section had a low rate of metastasis; it didn’t divide or spread through the body much. The other, however, did.
For six weeks, Lexi was subjected to targeted radiation therapy. Then, for the next six months, she travelled south to Santa Barbara once every four weeks to plug into an IV and sit through the slow drip-drip of chemotherapy drugs. Those drugs target cancer cells, but they also affect other rapidly dividing cells, such as hair cells, and often cause hair loss.
Lexi convinced her mom and private-school principal to let her violate the dress code by dyeing her hair purple. A week later, after her first round of chemotherapy, she shaved it off herself.
“The kid’s a fighter; I’m telling you, she’s a brute. She’s strong. She’s tough,” Lisa said. “My husband and I were raising her for this moment, for this battle, for 10 years.”
Chartier, president of the Make-A-Wish club at St. Joseph’s, knew Lisa as her former volleyball coach, and in turn, knew about Lexi. The club raised enough money—$5,000—to “adopt” Lexi for the Make-A-Wish foundation.
About 20 of the 400-odd students at St. Joseph’s are involved in the club, which raises money through a whole slew of creative fundraisers: bracelet and bake sales, reverse penny drives, auctioning off six months of babysitting. One fundraiser involves covering people’s lawns in plastic shooting stars. If you give the club a donation and an address, you can have the stars transplanted to someone else’s lawn.
Lexi’s wish is to go to the women’s world cup this summer in Canada, and Chartier rallied the soccer community at St. Joseph’s around her.
“We asked our coach if we could adopt her onto the team because she really wanted to play soccer,” Cartier said. “We wanted to adopt her onto the team and make her an honorary Knight, and she was really excited about it.”
Coach Alexis Lomeli thinks that sponsoring Lexi is one of the best things he’s been a part of at St. Joe’s.
“It’s easy to give a couple of bucks, but when you’re a part of it, it takes over your whole life,” he said.
Lexi doesn’t carry herself like someone whose life has been taken over by cancer. At the Feb. 6 game, she sat on the bench with her arms around her teammates, encouraging them and sassing the coach. She lined up with them at the beginning of the match, wearing a St. Joseph’s jacket several sizes too big. The purple Team Lexi bracelets she designed herself are everywhere.
When center midfielder Madelyn Pierce hurt her shoulder playing against Mission College Prep: “Lexi tried cheering me up,” Pierce said. “She’s still out there sharing her joy and love and sassiness.”
Chartier had a similar experience when she got hurt: “[Lexi] was cracking jokes: ‘Sarah, you can get back out there, you’re not even hurt,’” she said. “‘You can’t even say that you’re hurt right now.’”
That never-say-die attitude is just part of who Lexi is.
“G.I. Jane has nothing on this kid,” Lisa added.
Contact Staff Writer Sean McNulty at [email protected].