Better Days After Bone Cancer
Following treatment for osteosarcoma, young adult returns to Comer Children’s Hospital as a playroom volunteer
When Matthew Sanders was a patient at the University of Chicago Medicine Comer Children’s Hospital, the staff regularly encouraged the teen to take a break in the playroom on the first floor. Time and again, the 17-year-old said no. He didn’t want to be in the hospital, much less hang out in a place for little kids. When he finally relented, Sanders discovered the teen area -- and its pool table. From that point on, the playroom provided a respite from his treatments for bone cancer.
Finding a Tumor
In early 2011, the then high school senior sought help from orthopaedic specialists at Comer Children’s after sporadic pain in his left leg did not go away. He thought it could be related to playing basketball with his friends. But then tests revealed a tumor, called osteosarcoma, in his leg bone just below his knee.
Osteosarcoma is a malignant tumor that develops in the bone, most often the long bones of the arms and legs. Although it can be seen in any age group, the rare tumor most commonly occurs in teenagers and young adults. Because osteosarcoma can rapidly spread to other bones and to the lungs, prompt diagnosis and treatment is critical.
Oncologist Navin Pinto, MD, director of the sarcoma clinic at Comer Children’s Hospital, and orthopaedic surgeon Hue Luu, MD, an expert in the surgical treatment of bone cancer, joined forces to plan and implement Sanders’ medical care.
Treating the Tumor, Respecting a Religious Belief
A Jehovah’s Witness, Sanders informed his doctors that his faith prevented the use of blood transfusions during his care. Pinto and Luu strived to honor that wish while still delivering the highest and safest level of care.
Intermittent chemotherapy over a ten-week period was the first step in Sanders’ treatment. "Even if osteosarcoma seems to be localized in one area, microscopic amounts of cancer cells could metastasize to other sites," Pinto explained. "The goal of Matthew’s intensive chemotherapy was to shrink the tumor before surgery and to control the spread of any malignant cells." By closely monitoring Sanders for early signs of anemia during chemotherapy, Pinto was able to address this side effect with treatments other than blood transfusions.
In the summer of 2011, just before Sanders’ 18th birthday, Luu performed limb-sparing surgery to remove the tumor while preserving as much healthy bone as possible. Using computer assistance, Luu merged intraoperative data with MRI and CT scans to create a three-dimensional, virtual map of the tumor. An infrared light defined precise lines for cutting the affected bone.
"The more bone surface you leave, the better it is for healing and a return to utmost function," Luu said. "Computer-assisted navigation gives us an accuracy that is beyond what we can do free hand." Luu had been using the technique for hip and knee replacements for several years, but Sanders was the first bone cancer patient at the University of Chicago Medicine to benefit from the advanced technique.
During the lengthy operation, the surgical team applied a tourniquet to Sanders' leg to minimize blood loss, leaving it in place for the maximum amount of time. The result was ‘nearly bloodless’ surgery, according to Luu.
Sanders appreciated the extra steps taken by his medical and surgical team to avoid the need for a blood transfusion. "It was awesome," said Sanders, who has since supported and guided other Jehovah’s Witness patients undergoing medical or surgical treatment.
Getting Back to Life
After Sanders recovered from the operation, he underwent additional chemotherapy to destroy any remaining cancer cells. He then took time for recovery and rehabilitation, working out to regain his strength and get back in shape. He is still deciding what his career path will be, but is interested in pursing something in the medical field.
In the meantime, two days a week, Sanders volunteers in the hospital playroom that he once avoided. On a recent afternoon, he pulled up a red kid-sized chair next to five-year-old Brion Barlow. At eye-level with the young patient, Sanders encouraged him to play some games. Barlow, who had surgery the day before, stayed quiet at first. But when the two started racing small cars on a circular track, Barlow got the giggles and the two laughed together. "I really like being with the little kids," Sanders said.
"It was bittersweet when I finished treatment and had to leave Comer Children's," he added. "I volunteer here so I can stay in touch."