Beating Bone Cancer

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I was a high school senior and basketball player that had won multiple championship rings, when my world completely changed in June 2014. My father noticed that my left thigh appeared larger in mass than my right. Initially, we thought I was favoring my left leg when I was lifting weights, so worked out my lower body with one leg at a time. However, my bigger leg was weaker than my smaller one, which did not make any sense. On Thursday, June 5, I underwent an x-ray of my left femur in hope that we could find some answers to this mysterious anomaly. The following day my mother called me at school. She told me I needed to sign myself out and head home immediately. When I arrived back home, I saw my mother hanging up my thigh x-rays against the window to show me the results. On my left femur was a 38 centimeter long tumor, which covered basically the entire bone, bordered with my knee, and was three centimeters short of my hip. As my mother revealed this to me, I did not know how to react or what to expect to happen next.

Later that week, we met my primary oncologist for the first time, along with his team of co-workers who would share in their efforts to medically treat my cancer. We also came across my orthopedic surgeon, who little did I know at the time would become the person who saved my leg. This group of doctors required me to undergo every single type of test anyone could possibly take in the entire hospital. This included x-ray, bone scan, CT scan, echocardiogram, MRI, hearing test, etc. All of the different tests I had to go through lasted three long days of commuting back and forth. After the doctors examined these scans, my surgeon performed a biopsy. The result of the biopsy served as the final confirmation of my diagnosis, and would determine how we were going to fix this unknown problem.

The next day my family and I returned for my follow-up appointment to finally find out what was lurking inside my left thigh. I had been diagnosed with a rare bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. It was not the news we had hoped to hear, because now there was definitely going to be a long road ahead of me. My treatment would consist of one ten-week cycle of chemotherapy in attempt to trim the tumor, and then the surgery would take place, followed by two more ten-week chemo cycles. In total, my treatment was going to last around nine months; given there would be no interruptions to my treatment plan. During the entire time prior to surgery, I had to walk half-weight bearing with crutches due to the fact that Osteosarcoma feeds on your healthy bone, causing it to become brittle. This causes the bone to become more at risk of breaking, and an injury to the tumor is the last thing a patient wants to happen. If the tumor area breaks, the cancer will spread rapidly throughout the entire body, and chances of survival drastically decrease. Therefore, my parents had to become overprotective of me, which was not very flattering for an 18-year-old young man like myself.

The day after my final diagnosis was my graduation. It was hard to believe that my years in high school had actually come to an end. I never would have imagined it would end with me as a cancer patient, but yet that turned out to be the case. I attended the ceremony in a wheel chair because it took place on our football field, which consisted of very bumpy grass. The entire crowd stood and cheered as I accepted my diploma. A few people even chanted “J-E-F-F Jeff Jeff” which was the name chant they gave me when I played basketball. Our class president also gave me the honor to help him lead the cap tassle procedure. After the ceremony, everyone gave me hugs and best wishes with treatment.

On my first day of chemotherapy my mother and I left our house at 5:20am to beat the morning traffic on the way into the city. We met with my oncologist to discuss my chemotherapy. After meeting with my oncologist, it was time to start the fight. My mother and I walked over to the outpatient chemotherapy area and checked in at the desk there. We were assigned to my chemo bedroom where I met my outpatient nurse for the first time. My nurse injected two IVs through a port; in came the hydration and then my first dose of chemotherapy. My mother and I both entered into treatment with a positive attitude as we told ourselves we were going to beat this cancer. At this point, I still did not know what to expect, I only knew that whatever I was getting was going to help me get back to good health.

My first ten-week cycle of chemo lasted through the summer of 2014. The entire community rallied behind me as I commuted with my mother back and forth to hospital. Numerous family friends brought over meals for when we came back home from treatment. Everyone who knew my family or me would also come over every weekend to come show his or her support and bring gifts they thought would benefit me. People even made bracelets for me, which were yellow for the bone cancer color with blue lettering that said “J-E-F-F Jeff Jeff Jeff”. It was so incredibly nice to know that I was not fighting my bone cancer alone, and people were there for me no matter what happened.

In early fall I went in for a thirteen-hour surgery to remove the tumor. My femur and knee were replaced with a titanium rod and an artificial knee. I was hospitalized for ten days, when I had to work through severe pain to get up from bed and begin working again. The tumor was finally out of me, but there was still much to done about the cancer cells that were spreading beyond my femur. In fact, my doctors had also spotted a few cancerous nodules that spread to my lungs, and soon two lung surgeries were needed to remove those as well. The few tiny areas of cancer that metastasized there had already been killed by the chemo, but it was still good to have them also removed.

The rest of my time getting chemo went by faster than I ever could have imagined. During this time, I got to gather with other teenage patients in the teen and young adult lounge of my hospital floor. It was there that I got to make some special friends who I was able to bond with and share similar stories. Finally on Saint Patrick’s Day of 2015, my nine months of chemotherapy finally ended and I was declared cancer free. Words could not describe how it felt to finally be done with cancer treatment, but it was an incredibly awesome feeling to say the very least. It was time to move forward in life.

My victory over cancer though did come with a price. I could no longer play basketball with my new leg condition as the rod that was placed in me could not tolerate such impact. Fortunately, there was another passion I always had since I was a young boy. I have also always wanted to work for a history museum, as I have tremendous passion for both history and museums. Therefore, I decided that this was what I was going to do next with my life. However, my days with basketball did not completely come to an end. During the entire winter season I was going through treatment, I assisted my high school basketball coach with my former team. Being an assistant coach with my high school team not only gave me something fun to do and kept me in touch with old teammates, but it also opened some opportunities for me. I had been recorded on local newspaper articles several times, and was even was filmed on NJ-12 news to share my story to the public.

After one of my newspaper articles came out, something came in my high school’s mail for me. It was a five hundred dollar check and a letter from a pediatric cancer organization named the Frances Foundation. My parents and I met with the founder of this foundation, who sent us along with my best friend from basketball to the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis. Final Four weekend was the absolute trip of a lifetime, as I got to experience the games in real life and meet a few famous players and coaches in between events. The Frances Foundation continues to be a part of our family as we often attend their events.

In the fall of 2015, I began my freshman year at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida. As promising as the near future started to look for me, I would soon realize that my medical story was far from over. After only two months of my freshman year at Flagler, the prosthesis that replaced my femur suddenly loosened from my hip. At that point, I began to suffer the most horrendous agony I could have ever possibly imagined. The pain was so incredibly terrible, that I needed to return home for further treatment. Somehow, I managed to fly home from Florida to New Jersey and travel straight up to New York. I was hospitalized for nine days just to ease the pain before finally returning home. My surgeon decided to have a custom-made prosthesis produced for me, which will be much bigger and sturdier than my previous one. This required waiting three long moths in dire agony that led me to sleep downstairs and basically prevented my ability to leave the house. My second femur and knee replacement occurred on January 8, 2016, and this was a rare instance where I felt better immediately after surgery than before. I missed my entire freshman year that school year, and would not return to Flagler until the following fall.

I returned to Flagler for all of my sophomore year undisturbed. It appeared that all of my setbacks were finally behind me, but my fight only continued to occur. In the summer of 2017, the screws connected to my hip got loose, and I had to miss the following fall semester to have them replaced. It was frustrating to have to miss my third semester of college just to have a few screws replaced, but I knew it needed to be done so I could benefit in the long term. I returned to Flagler once more in the spring of 2018 in hope that things would get easier from that point on. However, the spring I returned from my screw replacement surgery only turned out to be my worst semester being in school. I had finished that semester with a 1.7 GPA, and my overall GPA dropped from a 3.1 to a 2.8. This was because I tried to balance my time between four upper level history classes, physical therapy, managing the basketball team at Flagler, and becoming a founding father of a fraternity. That semester taught me a lesson about “stretching myself too thin”, and I was forced to drop out of my efforts to help establish a fraternity and manage Flagler’s basketball team.

The following school year came and went undisturbed, but the summer of 2018 brought another setback. My artificial knee came loose, and I had to get that replaced. It was the fourth and last leg surgery that I needed to undergo in order to recover from the effects of my bone cancer. I went through another semester undisturbed, and it finally appeared that my long fight was finally over. In February 2019, I completed physical therapy after four years. At last, I had finally overcome my long-lasting, difficult battle with my health. The past two years have been an era of consistent improvement for me. I not only finished rehab, but also tremendously increased my GPA. I made deans list in three out of my last four semesters, and raised my overall average up from a 2.8 to a 3.2.

I graduated from Flagler with my degree in Public History this past spring, although it needed to be celebrated in quarantine due to the coronavirus. I will continue my education at George Washington University in Washington, DC to pursue a master’s in museum studies. While there, I aim to fulfill my lifelong dream of working for a history museum with all of the opportunities that will be offered to me.

As an inspiration of the challenges I faced the previous few years, I currently operate an instagram blog with the username, @beatbonecancer. Its purpose is to give guidance to others who are also battling bone cancer, along with raising awareness for it. I hope that by doing so, I can build a community of bone cancer fighters and supporters. I also want to give current patients something I did not have when I first started, which is someone to let them know what they can expect from treatment. I feel that by serving such guidance to those going through what I went through, they can feel more hopeful that they too can beat bone cancer.

By Jeff Bryant