With "Eye of the Tiger" thumping from the speakers, Alex Arrieta strutted like a rock star amid hundreds of screaming and dancing elementary school kids.
The 10-year-old student at Hilton Head Island School for Creative Arts showed no signs Wednesday that the next day he would begin a grueling, months-long fight for his life.
"I feel awesome!" he told his cheering fans Wednesday at the school's pep rally that was put on to raise his spirits.
Alex was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in February, and in July, after months of debilitating chemotherapy, he went into remission. The family learned last week, however, that the cancer had returned.
He will enter Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah on Thursday for months of even more aggressive chemo than he endured last year. He will also undergo a blood transfusion Thursday, and a bone marrow sample will be extracted from his hip.
If all goes as planned, he will transfer to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston in the spring for a bone-marrow transplant. But that can only occur if his cancer goes into remission again.
According to his father, had Alex's mother not insisted on a blood test last week, and the cancer had gone undetected, Alex would not have lived another two weeks.
At Wednesday's pep rally, Alex, whose nickname is "Smiles," was hopping around, joking with his friends and leading the audience in cheers.
"Alex!" one side of the room shouted.
"Fight, Smiles!" came the even louder response.
Principal Gretchen Keefner, who was in her own fight with cancer last year at the same time Alex was in remission, told Alex that the cheers and posters students gave him Wednesday were to remind him to be strong when he didn't want to take the medication and face its painful side effects.
"Well," he said into the microphone. "I hate the medicine, but I have to take it."
Keefner, who is now in remission, said in an interview before the pep rally that she marvels at Alex's strength. When she would undergo chemo, she would think of how much worse his treatments were.
"He's a tough kid," she said.
His father, Brandon Arrieta, sat behind his son on the stage at the pep rally, along with Alex's mother, Caroline, and other relatives and friends.
With misty eyes and a T-shirt that read, "Proud dad of a hero," Arrieta said the rally was just what Alex needed.
"He is completely pumped up," he said.
"He'll take that energy out of the crowd," she said, "and he'll take it with him."
Toy lambs sought for kids with cancer
Alex Arrieta is seeking 1,000 stuffed toy lambs to comfort children who are also battling cancer. Donated lambs for his Lambs for Life project can be sent to:
Alex Arrieta, c/o Andrea Hayes
57 Heritage Lakes Drive
Bluffton, SC 29910
The lambs also can be dropped off at Hilton Head Island School for the Creative Arts.
Follow city editor Don McLoud on Twitter at twitter.com/IPBG_Don.