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Doug Robinson: Draper teen fights off cancer from the brink

Published: Monday, Feb. 18 2013 11:27 p.m. MST

Alta's Lexe Selman, right, celebrates a goal during a game against Brighton in 2011. The teen will play for Arizona.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

Only a few months ago, family members were told to come to the hospital to say goodbye to Lexe Selman, the young soccer player with leukemia.

She had walked right up to the edge of death and was leaning over the precipice.

And yet there she was last week, running repeat sprints with her brother in the park. And there she was, enduring several tough training sessions with a personal trainer. And there she was, practicing with club soccer teams.

A few months ago, the Draper teen couldn't stand more than a few seconds, and even then she had help. Her weight plummeted. Her strength was gone. She had five hairs left on her head. Exactly five — she counted them, one, two, three, four, five.

This summer, she will report — fit, muscled, eager — to the University of Arizona to start her college soccer career after a year interrupted.

A few months ago, therapists rolled a ball across her hospital room to see if she could kick it. She was so weak that all she could do was give it a meager tap with her toe.

You remember Lexe Selman, don't you? She was in the news last spring. She was the 18-year-old girl who had just signed a soccer scholarship with Arizona and then found out she had leukemia. When the TV cameras left, she began the real fight.

She is not the same person now, and who would be after what she has faced and survived. She is an old soul, wise beyond her years. She says things like, "I can't believe people quit as soon as something gets hard." When someone observed that she never complained during her battle with cancer, she says, "I had a choice. I could make the make the most of it or whine all the time and be angry. I decided I wanted to be happy and make friends and have a good experience." Looking back, she says, "Getting sick was the hardest thing, but I learned to slow down and focus on what's important, and that's family and faith. It was difficult, but if I were promised I would get the experiences and blessings I did, I'd do it again."

What 18-year-old says that?

Cancer survivors own a hard-won wisdom. They redefine the parameters of "difficult." Compared to a cancer fight, school is a walk in the park. Compared to staring death in the face and holding a barf bucket, a job — any job — is a joyous task. Compared to having your lungs fill with gunk and watching your parents sit by your side in agony night and day, day-to-day living is Club Med.

Lexe, and all cancer survivors, go to hell and back. Doctors take them to the brink of death with their poisonous chemo cocktails to kill the cancer and then hope they can pull you back.

Lexe endured four rounds of it, each lasting eight to 10 days. She was almost KO'd in the third round. Doctors essentially drop a nuclear bomb on the body with the chemo treatment. It destroys the immune system, the red and white blood cells, the platelets. The third round put Lexe down for the count. Her blood was septic. Her blood pressure plummeted. Her temperature soared to 107 degrees. Her lungs filled with a Jell-O-like mucous. One lung collapsed. She struggled to breathe. Doctors put her on a ventilator and induced coma to help her body fight. On one occasion a rapid response team had to come to the rescue. She had 12 lines coming out of her body providing her with fluids and medicine.

"It was a three-week hell spiral," says Mark Selman, Lexe's father. "We didn't know if she was going to live. All we did was stare at the monitors and watch those numbers."

At one point, a doctor told them, "We'll give you enough time to get your family here." Family rushed to the hospital to say goodbye.

But she made it. The third round floored her but she got back on her feet, or at least was able to sit up with help. She went home for a week to recover and gather herself for another round. Later, nurses would tell her they had thought she wasn't going to make it.

And then at the end of those three weeks it was time to start the fourth round of chemo. She didn't have the strength for it, but what choice did doctors have? If they postponed another treatment the cancer could grow again. They gave her a week to recover and then started the fourth round. In the end, she survived it all. She gets a clean bill of health if she remains cancer free the next two years. Meanwhile, she is getting on with her life.

"It made me more grateful for little things," she says. "My family is really important to me. I'm not as caught up in the day-to-day worldly stuff."

On Monday, Tony Amato, the new University of Arizona soccer coach, visited Lexe at her home. This summer she will happily resume the athletic career she was enjoying before she was so rudely interrupted by cancer.

email: drob@desnews.com

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