Tackling breast cancer: UAB Football cheers as coach’s wife completes radiation

The cheers and claps of the Blazers roared as Lexie rang the bell to mark the completion of her last breast cancer radiation treatment.
Videography: Mayen Ma, Jeff Myers and Carson Young

Inside LA 1In July, Lexie and Austin tied the knot in a fairytale wedding.Football has been a through-line in Lexie Appleby’s life. From dancing on the sidelines in high school and college to finally achieving her dream of dancing professionally as a National Football League cheerleader, the sport has always been a consistency for her. However, Lexie never dreamed that football would play a role in saving her life. 

In sickness and health

When Lexie was 13 years old, her mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Since then, she began to do routine self-exams of her breasts in order to establish her baseline and watch for any changes. In June 2022 — just weeks before her wedding — Lexie discovered a lump in her left breast during a self-exam.  

This was not the first time she had found a lump; but she had history of fibroadenomas, non-cancerous tumors that can develop in breast tissue. She was not immediately alarmed, but instead chose to keep an eye on it. 

“I took a mental note of the lump, but I had bigger things on my mind,” Lexie recalled. “In just a matter of days, I was going to marry the man of my dreams.”

On the heels of a fairytale wedding and honeymoon, Lexie and her husband, Austin, a former college football player and current football coach, quickly jumped back into reality as Austin was preparing for the 2022 football season to kick off.

“The fall season is always crazy in our household, and it is the busiest season in Austin’s job,” Lexie said. “So honestly, the lump just fell to the back of my mind in the midst of all the chaos.”  

Inside LAIn just six months, Lexie went from bride to breast cancer patient.It was not until November — just four months after the couple wed — that Lexie noticed that the lump had grown. Several doctors’ appointments, scans and blood tests later, the newlywed’s worst nightmare was coming true — the lump was cancerous.  

On Dec. 1, 2022, at just 28, Lexie was a newly diagnosed cancer patient.

“When the doctor read the results, I was not surprised. I had already prepared myself for the worst news,” she said. “But it was still hard news to swallow because I had done genetic testing and I was negative for the genes that are most commonly found in breast cancer patients, BRCA1 and BRCA2.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women and only 9 percent of breast cancer patients are younger than age 45. The CDC also reports that breast cancer is more likely to be found at a later stage in younger women, causing the disease to be more aggressive and difficult to treat.

“I hope every woman hears my story and realizes that it does not matter your age, your race or how active you are — cancer does not discriminate.”

“Younger patients typically do not undergo routine screening, so if they develop breast cancer — which is quite rare — it has to be a spot of cancer that they can feel or see,” said Michael Soike, M.D., assistant professor in the UAB Department of Radiation Oncology. “By this time, the breast cancer is typically more advanced and has spread further within the breast or even to the lymph nodes.”

Deciding to call Birmingham “home”

Still riding the wave of emotions and questions that come after a breast cancer diagnosis, Austin received multiple coaching offers from colleges across the United States. One of those offers came from Trent Dilfer, head coach for the UAB Blazers. When weighing their options to stay in Missouri or go elsewhere, Lexie’s health was at the forefront of the decision-making process.

“I was thinking about her the whole time and trying to figure out what would be best for her,” Austin said. “But really, the right decision was in front of us the whole time. What better place could we move to than Birmingham, where some of the best medical providers in the country are?”

Lexie 1“I have this firm belief that cancer was something that happened for me, not to me."Tackling breast cancer

Days after Lexie had a mastectomy to remove the cancer, Austin accepted the wide receiver coach position with UAB in December 2022, and after they were settled in the Magic City, Lexie’s next task was to move her cancer care closer to home.  

Once she was established with a new oncologist, the game plan to tackle her cancer began to unfold. Lexie would undergo 25 days of radiation at the Hazelrig-Salter Radiation Oncology Center, a member of the O’Neal Comprehensive Cancer Center at UAB.

“For 25 days, I pulled up to the parking lot of Hazelrig-Salter, and from the first encounter with a UAB team member to the valet team and all the way to the nursing staff, everyone was so amazing and nice to me,” Lexie said. “I would not have made it through some days had it not been for my care team and my rock, Austin.”

UAB Football becomes Lexie’s cheerleaders

On May 3, 2023, Lexie arrived at UAB for a radiation treatment for the last time.

1205635903594613.pmHsk3fbQJ5Su7fWscRb height640Lexie was surprised to see coaches and family of UAB Football waiting to see her cross into the endzone.After her treatment, she walked to the lobby, where she was surprised to see coaches and family of the UAB Football team waiting to see her cross into the endzone. Those in attendance watched as she rang the bell, a tradition in cancer care that signals the completion of treatment. The cheers and claps of the Blazers roared as Lexie smiled and embraced her husband.

“It was just amazing to see all the love and support from our UAB family in that pivotal moment in our life,” Austin said. “It is something that I will never forget.”

Even though radiation was over, Lexie knew that this journey was far from over. She felt that everything she had been through — radiation, surgery and putting the idea of children on hold — was meant for a greater purpose.

“I have this firm belief that cancer was something that happened for me, not to me. There is a reason I needed to endure this pain, and it is for a more significant purpose,” she said. “Even though I cannot see the why and how just yet, I do know that I have a strong will and desire to ensure this journey was not in vain.”

Cancer does not discriminate

Since her diagnosis, Lexie has shared her story with all who will listen. When asked why she is open about the hardest battle she has faced yet, she simply states she does not want any young women to go through what she had to.

inside Lexie Appleby Portraits at RR Park 092123 0080Austin, Lexie and Ozzie
Photography: Jennifer Alsabrook-Turner
“If you know in your soul that something is not right, do not stop until you find your answer,” she said. “So many times, I would hear ‘You are too young … too beautiful to have cancer.’ A lot of us have this picture in our heads that breast cancer can only happen to those who are older and do not take care of themselves. 

I hope every woman hears my story and realizes that it does not matter your age, your race or how active you are — cancer does not discriminate.”

A game plan for the future

Now the 29-year-old looks at the future with a new sense of hope. The next plays in the Appleby family game book include hopes of building a family, watching Ozzie, their puppy, continue to grow and a breast reconstruction surgery later this fall with the UAB Division of Plastic Surgery.

“I would have never expected that football would be part of the reason my life was saved,” Lexie said. “Thanks to Austin’s career, we were led to UAB, and I was not only able to have my cancer treated, but we found our new home in Birmingham.”