They met. They fell in love. Then Alex Guerrero’s cancer came back
by Deanna Pan | March 5, 2018 10:45 am
Childhood cancer survivors Morgan Gaile Guerrero and Alex Guerreromet while volunteering at Camp Happy Days in Summerton. Alex died three days after their wedding. Photo by Aliya Minter
They met on the first of July, another sultry summer day when the air feels like a warm blanket that melts into your skin.
It was the day before the campers arrived at the lakefront campground in Summerton, an hour’s drive north of Charleston. They were both counselors, charged with wrangling children half their age. A mutual friend introduced them.
Morgan Gaile Krohn was 21, blond and petite. Alex Guerrero was 19, with a sleeve of tattoos on his left arm and a prosthetic leg where his right one used to be.
“So you’re a cancer survivor, too?” he asked her. “Yeah,” she said.
Morgan rarely talked about her cancer story — and never with boys she had only just met. She was diagnosed with sarcoma, a rare form of cancer, at age 6, that originated in her thigh before spreading to her lungs. Bouts of radiation, surgery and chemotherapy did not cure her, but they had stabilized her cancer so it had not grown in many years.
And Morgan, who still visits her oncologist every six months, spent the best summers of her childhood here at Camp Happy Days, where children with cancer have a chance to feel normal again.
Alex was different. He talked about his cancer with everyone. He shared every treatment, every prognosis, the good and the bad, on Instagram. (His username was “bigbuns.”) He was 17 and a senior at Nation Ford High School in Fort Mill, when he was diagnosed in the spring of 2015.
Alex had finished running a 5K in honor of a friend with prostate cancer. When he returned home, he complained to his mother, Pati F. Guerrero, of an aching knee. Two weeks later, his right knee was even more swollen and painful. His doctor ordered an MRI and called not long after to discuss the results.
He asked Alex and his mother if they would come by his office. The doctor sat across from Alex, eye to eye, and gave him the news: Alex had a malignant tumor in his right knee. The big “C-word.” Cancer.
From that day on, Alex’s life revolved around trips to Levine Children’s Hospital in Charlotte. He managed to graduate from high school but had to defer his first semester at the College of Charleston while he recovered from knee replacement surgery and chemotherapy. Alex was in remission for 11 months, but his cancer returned in October 2016. Now the disease infected the tissue around his knee. His oncologist recommended amputating his right leg below the thigh. Alex, who was in so much pain, agreed he was better off without it.
When Morgan met Alex, he was confident and charismatic. He had a way, she said, of making everyone feel like they were his best friend. Even with his prostheses, he kept up with the young campers better than most counselors with two legs — running, rock-climbing, and leaping into Lake Marion.
On the night of the camp prom, they spent hours outside, sitting in a golf cart, swapping cancer stories. Morgan was head over heels. When she turned in for the night, she broke down in tears. She was sure she had met the love of her life.
They were inseparable all summer. A first kiss at a nightclub in downtown Charleston. A first date at Tavern & Table in Mount Pleasant. A trip to Fort Mill to meet his parents. Driving around in his arctic-blue Jeep named “Cream Puff.” Celebrating Alex’s 20th birthday.
Then, in September, their fairy-tale summer came to a screeching halt. Alex had cancer again, this time in his leg and lungs. The night of his third diagnosis, Morgan tearfully told Alex she loved him. Alex told Morgan not to cry.
He had beaten cancer twice. He could do it again.
Alex was through with intravenous chemotherapy. The side effects were brutal: fevers that kept him and his parents up all night at the hospital, sores that erupted all over his mouth and gums, the loss of his vision, weight and hair.
And Alex wanted to keep going to school. Inspired by the nurses who cared for him at Levine’s, he studied public health at the College of Charleston with the goal of becoming a pediatric oncology nurse.
He started a regimen of chemotherapy pills that turned his dark hair white. He joked that he had the “reverse frosted tips look.” Whenever other students complimented his hair’s unique coloring, Alex would quip: If you get cancer and take a bunch of chemo pills, you can have the same look, too.
In December, Alex had another appointment with his oncologist at Levine Children’s Hospital. He found out the pills were not working. A scan showed his cancer had continued to metastasize, spreading now to the lining of his lungs. At best, his oncologist said, he had four to six months to live.
There was nothing else anyone could do.
He called Morgan while she was at work at a pediatrician’s office in Charleston, and she collapsed in hysterics in the bathroom. She could hardly speak through her sobs, but she managed to tell Alex she would see him soon. Then Morgan told her boss she had to go.
She made the three-hour drive from Charleston to Fort Mill with her mother because she was too distraught to drive.
Alex and Morgan had many dreams: marriage, children, building their own house. Alex wanted Morgan to meet his family in Mexico. Now they were just trying to hold on to what they already had.
On Jan. 28, Alex asked Morgan, now 22, to marry him. It was a surprise proposal at Camp Bob Cooper in Summerton, where Camp Happy Days holds its week-long retreat. More than 100 family and friends were there for an event that Morgan had thought would be a celebration of Alex’s life.
Instead, with help from the same friend who had introduced them six months earlier, Alex bent down on his only knee and offered Morgan a pear-shaped diamond ring.
Maybe all Alex needed was a second opinion, a new treatment plan, a different doctor. He and Morgan soon drove to Boston with Alex’s father, Luis, for an appointment at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Maybe Alex should try another chemotherapy pill, take some more tests. Maybe that would buy him more time. They left Boston full of hope.
“So today I received the worst news of my life …”
Alex’s vision was too cloudy to tap out the tiny letters on his phone, so he dictated his Instagram message to Morgan. On the morning of Feb. 8, Alex, Morgan and his parents met with his oncologist in Charlotte. Alex’s right lung was covered in cancerous tumors, pushing his heart to the other side of his chest. He had three, maybe four weeks left.
“What do you want to do?” Morgan asked. “I want to marry you,” he said.
They agreed to get married the following Saturday, three days after Valentine’s Day, in the living room at the Guerreros’ home. Family, friends and neighbors flew into action. They needed a cake, a photographer, flowers, a priest, a dress for Morgan, something for the guests to eat.
But on Monday, Feb. 12, the hospice nurse warned that Alex wouldn’t make it to Saturday. His blood pressure was dropping; his breathing was slow and labored. Father John from St. Philip Neri Catholic Church was scheduled to meet with the couple at the Guerreros’ home on Tuesday. Why not just get married then?
Morgan would have been satisfied walking barefoot to marry Alex, without the chiffon or hydrangeas or Pachelbel’s Canon in D. But in 24 hours, the Guerreros’ neighbors had transformed their living room into a chapel.
A set of 24 white chairs were arranged in front of the fireplace. Pink rose petals were scattered across the makeshift aisle. A fashion designer in Charlotte told Morgan she could have any dress from his workshop, and Morgan picked a tulle ballgown with a sweetheart neckline.
Alex wasn’t afraid of dying anymore. He was afraid of being forgotten. He was afraid Morgan wouldn’t be OK.
He was afraid he couldn’t give Morgan the wedding of her dreams. But it was perfect.
With every ounce of strength he had left, Alex rolled himself down the aisle in his wheelchair. Morgan walked arm in arm with her father.
She was radiant. And Alex couldn’t take his eyes off of her. To their guests, Morgan looked at Alex and Alex looked at Morgan like they were the only ones in the room.
His voice quivered as he read Morgan his vows from a piece of paper ripped from a hotel notepad.
“You are not only my soulmate, but my best friend.”
On Instagram, Alex said he never thought anyone would ever love him until he met Morgan. She saw past his illness. She made him feel whole again.
And Morgan, who had never fallen for another cancer survivor until she met Alex, said he filled a hole in her life she never knew she had.
Alex died peacefully in his sleep three days after the wedding, at 8:15 a.m. Feb. 16, surrounded by family and friends. Morgan lie by his side in their bed, holding his hand, stroking his hair.
Before he passed, Morgan promised Alex she would fulfill the dreams they shared together, that she would love him forever.
As he drifted in and out of consciousness, Morgan told Alex not to worry.
“I’m going to be OK.”