Daughter Draws Strength from Late Father in Brain Cancer Battle

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Alexandra (Alex) Berking and her father, Chris, shared a mutual passion for sports. When Alex became a college assistant athletic trainer, Chris kidded her about being paid to watch lacrosse, soccer, and hockey games – something they both already enjoying doing for free.

By that point, Chris was fighting the colorectal and lung cancer that would soon spread to his brain and kidney. He passed away a year later, and now, as she goes through her own brain cancer treatment at age 24, Alex is experiencing a new connection to her dad – and drawing strength from his example.

“Doctors tell me I’m stoic and handling things well, and it’s the same thing they used to tell him,” says Berking, who was diagnosed in November 2017 and is being treated at Dana-Farber. “I love that; I was always daddy’s little girl, playing the same sports as him all through high school, and I still am.”

Alex Berking (second from right) with her parents and sister Meghan at Alex’s college graduation in 2015.

Alex Berking (second from right) with her parents and sister Meghan at Alex’s college graduation in 2015.

The last few years have been a whirlwind for the family. A day after Alex’s graduation from college in in May 2015, her parents told her and her younger sister, Meghan, about Chris’ diagnosis. Alex left their northern Massachusetts home for upstate New York and her job at SUNY Potsdam a few months later – throwing herself into a new career caring for student athletes and staying in touch with her dad during his treatment.

After Chris passed away at age 54 in June 2016, Alex continued playing the “strong, silent type.” Meghan – an undergraduate student – joined a group of college-aged athletes who ran more than 4,000 miles from San Francisco to New York City in the summer of 2017, raising funds and awareness for young adults with cancer.

Then, in the fall of 2017, Alex began experiencing headaches. It was her boss, Potsdam head athletic trainer, Michael Pitts, who pushed Alex to go to the doctor. A tumor was found in her brain, and a few days later 90 percent of it was removed surgically.

Alex with her Dana-Farber nurse Sandra Ruland, RN, BSN, OCN.

Alex with her Dana-Farber nurse Sandra Ruland, RN, BSN, OCN.

Now on temporary leave from her job, Alex is cared for by a Dana-Farber team led by David Reardon, MD, clinical director of the Center for Neuro-Oncology at Dana-Farber. She is staying with her mother, Sheryl, at the Hope Lodge in Boston’s Jamaica Plain neighborhood – a few miles away from Dana-Farber’s campus – and is undergoing radiation treatment five days per week plus daily chemotherapy.

Through it all, Alex has stayed in contact with her “second family” in Potsdam’s athletic department. Coworkers and student athletes regularly boost her spirits with gifts, ranging from hockey jerseys autographed by the men’s and women’s varsity teams to wool caps and blankets. She also receives check-ins by phone and text, and her roommate, Jordan Ott – assistant softball coach at the college – has started a GoFundMe page to help cover Alex’s expenses. Additional financial assistance is generated by donated gate receipts at various sporting events, both at Potsdam and other schools in the State University of New York Athletic Conference.

“I can’t begin to explain how this all makes me feel,” says Berking. “Hundreds of people who don’t even know me are helping me. It’s amazing.”

It comes as no surprise, then, that Berking plans to return to her job as soon as she gets the proper post-radiation rest and Reardon’s okay.

“Every time we talk I say ‘Alex, take your time and do what’s right for you and your family – don’t rush back on our account,’ explains her boss, Pitts. “Alex has never wavered. She wants to be back, to prove this can’t stop her. As an athletic trainer, she cares and wants to help people.”

Besides, as her father would agree, nothing beats getting paid to watch games.

Learn more about treatment for brain tumors from the Center for Neuro-Oncology at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

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