By Steve Blanchard
When Tampa Bay drag performer Alexis de la Mer noticed a raised area on her thigh, she assumed it was an ingrown hair. But when it started affecting her performances as a popular performer and drag queen bingo hostess throughout Tampa Bay, she knew she needed to visit a doctor.
“Within a month of me noticing this small bump the size of a golf ball, it had grown to the size of a child’s Nerf football,” de la Mer said. “I was working as a server and performing, but my leg was really hurting a lot and affecting me at every performance.”
The pain grew so severe that it cost de la Mer her job as a server at a chain restaurant because she was unable to move quickly enough. She went to St. Petersburg General Hospital, and doctors there suggested she see the experts at Moffitt.
“I was terrified when St. Petersburg General Hospital doctors suspected a tumor,” de la Mer said. “I was freaking out.”
At her first appointment at Moffitt, doctors diagnosed her with liposarcoma, a cancer that arises in fat cells in deep soft tissue. Liposarcoma cells resemble fat cells when examined under a microscope, so it can be difficult to diagnose.
Doctors put de la Mer on a chemotherapy treatment in an attempt to shrink the tumor.
“I would spend one week inpatient and then I’d get to go home for a week,” she recalled. “The chemotherapy made me sick and I had to step away from performing for a while. I had no energy and I felt miserable.
“But Moffitt saved my leg and my life.”
She also credits the doctors and nurses for making her comfortable. In her hospital room, de la Mer recalled a nurse coming in while she was surfing through the television channels.
“It was a Monday, and I was looking for my favorite show,” she said. “He finally looked at me and said, ‘You know we do get RuPaul’s Drag Race,’ and then he told me he was gay, too.”
That started a conversation, and de la Mer shared some photos of her drag performances. The nurse immediately recognized her and said he had seen many performances and remembered tipping her.
“It’s a small gay world,” de la Mer laughed. “I admit it’s hard to recognize me out of drag unless you’re familiar with my voice. Once the other nurses learned I was a drag performer, they came in and asked to see photos.”
For nearly two months, de la Mer underwent chemotherapy on alternating weeks until she was finally cleared for surgery. After doctors removed the golf ball-sized tumor, her treatment concluded with radiation therapy.
Today, she uses her personal story to motivate donations to charity and has a special place in her heart for cancer charities. Recently, at a drag queen bingo event for the American Cancer Society, de la Mer said she shared her personal story and was shocked when she received a standing ovation.
“I was really moved and it shows that people out there care and we have to support those who are fighting this battle,” she said.
“I talk about my cancer journey at fundraising shows and I’ve had at least four people come up to me and ask about cancer treatments or to just share that they or a loved one is going through treatment,” de la Mer said. “Talking about it makes me relatable, which is something I’ve always wanted to be.”
She began her drag career in New York City, where she adopted the over-the-top and colorful look of the city’s drag community. She brought that same flare for the outrageous and colorful to Tampa Bay when she moved here 13 years ago.
“Drag can get too serious, and I don’t like that,” de la Mer said. “When you look at me, I want people to think, ‘I want to talk to her and I want my picture with her.’”
Even though she is in remission, she gets a routine cancer screening every year. She said her leg still gives her some pain but she’ll gladly take that over the alternative.
And de la Mer is back performing. She hosts drag queen bingo at several Hamburger Mary’s locations and continues to perform in drag shows on both sides of Tampa Bay.
“My performances are dialed back a little – I can’t be as bouncy and jumpy,” she laughed. “But I’m still giving it my all whether I’m pulling bingo balls or performing a number.
“Thanks to Moffitt, I have another chance to entertain and do some good in this world, and I’m going to continue to embrace that.”
Learn more about Moffitt's ongoing commitment to diversity:
Moffitt is the only cancer center in Florida named a 2018 LGBTQ Healthcare Equality Leader