Chapel Hill Native Fought Cancer While Excelling in the Military

Alex Werden, 27, has never let anything get in the way of achieving his goals—even cancer.

UNC patient Alex Werden at attention at West Point
UNC patient Alex Werden at attention at West Point

Born in New Jersey and raised in Chapel Hill, Werden was diagnosed at age 18 with rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare pediatric cancer, after completing his freshman year at the United States Military Academy West Point. Rhabdomyosarcoma usually begins in muscles that are attached to bones and help the body move, but it can occur anywhere in the body. Rhabdomyosarcoma can strike at any age, but it most often affects children.

“I was on leave at home for three days when I discovered a lump on my body that had not been there before. I thought it may be a hernia, but after my hometown pediatrician sent me to the emergency department, I was diagnosed with cancer,” Werden says.

A Year of Classes and Chemo

In 2014, Werden was facing vigorous treatment at UNC Health that would entail surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation. He transferred from West Point to UNC-Chapel Hill for his sophomore year, lived on campus and competed on the UNC Triathlon team.

“My family and friends were worried with what was going on with my treatment—was I going to live? Was I going to be able to go back to West Point? But to be honest, I was more worried about living life to the absolute fullest and doing the things that I enjoy doing,” Werden says.

UNC patient Alex Werden, giving a thumb's up from his hospital bed after a surgery
UNC patient Alex Werden post-surgery

At UNC-Chapel Hill while on medical leave from the Army, he took classes to continue academic progress in his field of studies with UNC’s Peace, War and Defense major. In addition to taking classes and writing papers, Werden was undergoing grueling chemotherapy. In fact, he sometimes attended class with a “chemo backpack,” which held a portable pump that he could bring with him to receive IV fluids instead of being hooked up to an IV in the hospital.

Then, by the time he got to finals week his first semester, he had just completed a month of radiation in addition to the chemo. He was sometimes vomiting uncontrollably but had a backlog of papers due, plus three final exams and a digital photography project.

“So, I called my oncologist, Dr. Stuart Gold, and I said I have never failed a class in my life, I don’t know what to do, but I don’t think physically I can do this. I have three days to write all these papers and then three exams in a 48-hour period and this project,” Werden says.

Dr. Gold told him that he would support him however he could, but also encouraged him to stick it out.

“I think he knew I would regret it if I did not,” Werden says.

So Werden buckled down, spent a week in the library and passed all of his courses.

“He never let anything hold him down during treatment,” Dr. Gold says.

Crossing the Finish Line

UNC patient Alex Werden competes in a triathlon
UNC patient Alex Werden competes in a triathlon

Werden says his second semester was not as grueling physically because his chemo protocol “wasn’t as bad,” and he did not have any other surgeries or radiation treatment.

In addition to classes, he competed with the UNC Triathlon team.

“Every race got more difficult as I got more out of shape (from treatment) and the effect on my body was worse and worse,” Werden says. “And that all led up to nationals that spring. I tried to get back in shape so I could compete at the Collegiate Nationals with the UNC Triathlon team.”

The race was special because his teammates from West Point would be there.

“It was a struggle, but then I looked down the finish line and saw a bunch of Carolina blue and a bunch of black and gold, which were my West Point teammates,” Werden says, “and they all ran back on the course after they finished the race and helped me get through the finish line.”

After Cancer, a Commissioned Officer

After finishing his surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy, Werden returned to West Point cancer-free in 2015. Because of his year on medical leave, the Spanish classes he planned to take were full, so he ended up taking Farsi. This gave Werden an opportunity to spend a semester in Tajikistan.

“I spent a semester studying Farsi, traveling the country and living with a local family,” he says. “It was pretty incredible.”

During his senior year, he turned his attention to becoming a commissioned infantry officer—something he was not sure he would be able to qualify for given his medical history. As an infantry officer, he would be responsible for leading soldiers during missions on the ground, so he knew he needed to be in top shape to do so.

“I had wanted to be an infantry officer as a freshman and then I got sick, and I thought there’s no way I would pass Ranger school (one of the toughest training courses for which a soldier can volunteer),” Werden says. “I was worried about not being able to get through it. Then Branch Night, the night where we all open up the envelopes to find out what branch we are going to commission into, finally comes. I opened my envelope up, and it said Infantry. I may have cried a little bit. But at some point during my training after graduation, I realized that I could still do it.”

He completed the Infantry Basic Officer Leaders Course, Ranger School, and Airborne School at Fort Benning, Georgia, and then took his first assignment with the Fourth Infantry Division at Fort Carson, Colorado, as a platoon leader for a heavy weapons platoon and then the battalion’s mortar platoon. Soon after, he was selected as the Headquarters and Headquarters Company executive officer.

Using His Skills to Help Others

UNC Patient Alex Werden in front of an army helicopter
UNC Patient Alex Werden in front of an army helicopter

While at Fort Carson, he was selected to work in Public Affairs for the Army in 2021.

“I was ready for a job change because I wanted to learn more about contributing to the bigger picture,” Werden says.

But 13 days later, he received 22 hours’ notice that he was needed as a linguist to help relocated Afghans at an Army post in Wisconsin during the U.S. evacuation of Afghanistan. There, he helped develop a communications program for 13,000 Afghans in the middle of Wisconsin.

Werden and his team came up with a way to use cellphones and other methods to communicate to Afghans who did not understand English.

“They could hit play on a phone and hear what we were trying to get out, which was pretty cool. I only was sent because I took Farsi because that year at UNC resulted in me changing my plans for learning a foreign language,” Werden says. “And that only happened because I was diagnosed with cancer. And as a result, I got to meet a lot of amazing people all working together to support thousands of incredible Afghans who I will never forget.”

Werden is now back at Fort Carson in command of the 14th Public Affairs Detachment for the U.S. Army.

“When we are not on missions elsewhere in the U.S. or world, what I get to do now is share the stories of the soldiers and families we have at our installation,” Werden says. “I get to leverage the fact that our soldiers and families are regular people just like everyone else in the country. The mission of sharing the Army’s story while commanding a detachment of professional storytellers all dedicated to doing the same is pretty unique. I really enjoy it.”

Werden says his cancer journey is what led him to where he is today.

“People say everything happens for a reason, and I believed that until some of the other patients and friends I met because of cancer passed away,” Werden says. “So, I don’t believe everything happens for a reason, but I do believe that out of every bad thing comes an opportunity for you to do something good with it.”

Learn more about the nationally ranked pediatric cancer program at UNC Children’s.