My fiancée had been complaining on and off about minor knee pain and swelling for months. She kept putting off doing anything about it, because she’s a former college basketball player who had already had two surgeries on that knee, and she assumed it was residual effects from those injuries. But I was having a slow day in clinic, so I told her to come in for an X-ray.
And then I saw it. A large tumor behind her knee. Needless to say, that wasn’t what I was expecting to find, but I knew what it was. A parosteal osteosarcoma. It’s a rare cancer that typically occurs on the long bones of women in their 30s. I immediately went into damage control mode. I contacted my colleagues to confirm what I was seeing, scheduled a follow-up appointment for her, and I braced myself for having to break the news.
I’m an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in trauma, fracture care, and the direct anterior approach to hip replacements. Telling people, especially loved ones, that they have cancer isn’t something I do every day. I’ve had to share bad news with families, but luckily most of the time, I’m walking out to tell family members that the surgery went well, we expect a full recovery, and providing some tips for post-surgical care. And, of course, I was beating myself up for not insisting that she get it checked out earlier.
Thankfully, this story has a happy ending. The cancer had not yet spread, and one of my colleagues was able to remove the tumor (and a portion of her femur) surgically, despite it being larger than we originally thought. Recent advances made it possible for a 3D-model to be printed of her tumor, so that the cadaver bone used to replace it could be an exact fit. She’s now been declared cancer-free, and while she’s still not walking totally normally yet, she’s off crutches and mobile again. She’ll have to continue being scanned regularly for the next few years, but everyone is confident the cancer won’t return.
If we had waited longer, if she had continued to ignore the nagging pain, this could have resulted in a very different outcome. It’s so easy to put things off. We all have so much going on in our lives. Work commitments, family events, friendships to maintain. We’d also recently relocated from Minnesota to Northern Virginia, so we’d had the hundreds of little things that moving entails to take care of. We got lucky, but I still wish we’d found the tumor earlier when it was smaller and easier to remove.
So, I call on all of you – get those regular check-ups, talk to a medical professional about those mild, but lingering pains, and don’t try to self-diagnose and talk yourself out of it because it seems like too much of a hassle to rearrange your schedule. The earlier you’re diagnosed, regardless of what the issue may be, the better chances you have of recovery.
Jennifer Wood is an orthopedic surgeon.