JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A week after starting his high school career, a Science Hill freshman was in a hospital bed starting a battle with a rare form of liver cancer.
Xander Pierce was diagnosed with Fibrolamellar Carcinoma, a type of liver cancer only occurs in one in five million people, according to the National Cancer Institute. He was sent to the Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis on August 13 and has now started chemotherapy at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital.
His mother, Mitzi Pierce, spoke to News Channel 11 as she was back in Johnson City preparing to move to Memphis during the course of Xander’s treatment.
Pierce said her son, with his interests in science and weightlifting, was excited to start high school. “He loves natural sciences. He loves animals,” Pierce said. “He’s just got the best positive attitude of anybody I’ve ever met.”
Pierce said Xander, who just turned 15, started feeling ill in April.
“He just kept saying his stomach was hurting, his back was hurting,” Pierce said. “Everything would come back negative. We just had everybody scratching their head, wondering what was happening.”
It is not Xander’s first brush with serious illness. He had previously been diagnosed with Leukodystrophy, a brain disorder impacting the white matter of the brain.
After the trip to Memphis, the illness was diagnosed as Fibrolamellar Carcinoma. Pierce said St. Jude had only seen three cases of that cancer before.
Xander is participating in a trial study of an experimental chemotherapy to hopefully reduce the size of the tumor. “There’s different types of chemotherapy cocktails that they’re mixing just trying to see what they can get,” Pierce said. “The goal is to shrink the tumor enough so that it can be resected, so surgery removal.”
The cancer has metastasized, spreading to Xander’s lymph nodes. Additionally, Mitzi Pierce said the size of the tumor has grown, impacting Xander’s inferior vena cava and heart.
Pierce said Xander will undergo four rounds of chemotherapy, but they do not know the results at this point. “The schedule just started. So basically, we do two days of chemo, and then see how he tolerates that, and then he goes to an outpatient location,” Pierce said.
Pierce said chemotherapy has been taxing on her son. Xander had lost eight pounds since coming to the hospital.
“He has hard times when he feels really bad,” Pierce said. “Day 7-10 post-chemo, you’re at the bottom, bottom. He actually had to have a blood transfusion yesterday.”
Pierce said she was packing Monday for a long-term stay in Memphis to give Xander a place to recover that feels more like home.
As for Xander, it is unclear if he’ll be able to return home to Johnson City during the chemotherapy. That depends on how he responds to treatment. She said life after the diagnosis has been a whirlwind, and it has been tough for everyone in the family.
“It’s devastating. In one respect, you’re glad you know what’s going on,” Pierce said. “If it wasn’t for God, I couldn’t do it. I have my moments. I break down, and then I have to I have to shake it off and get back up and be momma because that’s what you have to do.”
Pierce is taking time off from her work as a realtor to be with Xander, but that’s put the family in a financial bind with medical and housing costs. She said proceeds from various GoFundMe accounts are helping the family stay afloat.
But past financial support, the Science Hill community has overwhelmed the Pierces with comfort and encouragement for Xander.
“I got a phone the other day from Tri-Delta, which is one of the housing places [in Memphis], and they said Ms. Pierce could you please pick up Xander’s mail,” Pierce said. “He had packages stacked probably three feet tall.”
Pierce said every athletic department at Science Hill sent t-shirts and autographed balls. He also received packages from Liberty Bell and Indian Trail Middle Schools.
“He said, “Mom, look around my room. Look how many people love me,” Pierce said. “His attitude has been amazing.”
Pierce said one of her prouder moments was watching her son interact with several medical students observing his lymph nodes.
“He was so thrilled that he got to help some medical students learn about some lymph nodes that aren’t commonly seen,” Pierce said. “Just thrilled to be able to help people learn from what he’s going through, but at the same time, he’s having a hard time with it too. It’s reality.”
Pierce said Xander has been actively sharing updates on TikTok, which has helped him through the process.
“I mean, the vulnerability and the strength it takes. Most people would just hide and just give up, but he’s not. He’s determined he’s going to make it,” Pierce said.
If you’d like to show your support for Xander, Mitzi Pierce said she would like people to send postcards from around the country.
To send a postcard to Xander, address it to Xander Pierce, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 262 Danny Thomas Place, Memphis, TN 38105-3678.