Four Words. Your son has cancer. Four words I never thought I would hear. Four words that just didn’t seem real. Four words that changed our lives forever.
Nathan just turned 18. He’s healthy. He’s an athlete. He can’t have cancer.
Summer 2017 Nathan came home from football complaining about his leg hurting. He pointed out a small knot just below his knee. No big deal, right? I mean he was the kicker for his football team. He was kicking daily and not just a little kicking. He was practicing kick offs, punting and field goals. Naturally, I assumed any pain he was having had to be caused by overuse. The season gets rolling and he complains off and on about the pain. We would alternate using ice packs, heating pads and give him an anti-inflammatory to help but the knot never went away. Nathan was kicking the ball better than ever. He was starting to get calls and letters from colleges about coming to kick for their football programs. We were excited about the opportunities that lay ahead. The football season came to a disappointing end in the state semi-final round. But even though our goal of a State Championship title didn’t happen Nathan still walked away from the field with so many honors. He was named to the All-State team for Kicking and Punting. He finished in the top ten in the state for most points scored by a kicker. And he was named 2017 Kicker of the Year for Nashville Area All Region. I was one proud mama!
The season’s end was a bitter-sweet time for me because this meant it was time for the littles and I to make the big move to Michigan. We moved Nathan into my parents house and with a heavy heart I left my first baby behind to finish his senior year with all of his friends and classmates. Of course it wasn’t an easy decision to move without him but he was a senior in high school and I couldn’t expect him to leave. Even though I was 550 miles away didn’t stop me being his mama. We talked every day. When we talked he started complaining more and more about his leg. It was swollen and at times he could barely walk on it. He called me in the middle of the night the second week I was in Michigan in tears because it was hurting him so bad. I told him that night on the phone that I would make him an appointment with an orthopedic doctor. I have always been a walk it off kind of mom but it was past due for him to have his leg looked at.
Just a few days after Thanksgiving my dad took Nathan to the ortho appointment. I waited to get a call to hear that everything is alright but that didn’t happen. My dad called and said the doctor isn’t worried about his knee. He’s concerned about the mass or cyst on his shin. He wants us to go to get a MRI right now. My dad is a preacher and has no real medical knowledge so he didn’t know he should be worried. But because of mine and Les’s lengthy medical background we knew what it means when a doctor says they are concerned. It felt like someone kicked me in the stomach. I was terrified and I already knew this was bad. I called the doctor’s office and requested that the doctor call me personally. Within minuets I received a call. *Yet another bad sign if a doctor is returning your call that quickly.* He told me that there was a tumor on the upper half of his tibia and it was most likely cancer. It could possibly be osteosarcoma due to the location of the tumor. He couldn’t believe that Nathan was able to kick the ball the way he did with a tumor that size in his leg. He said that he was referring us on to an orthopedic oncology surgeon.
When I hung up I purchased one way tickets for the kids and I to go back to Nashville. In my heart I knew we wouldn’t be coming back to Michigan any time soon. I told my parents not to tell Nathan anything yet that I wanted to be the one to talk to him. Of course he knew something wasn’t right when he found out the kids and I were flying back to Nashville after only being gone for 2 weeks but he didn’t know how much his life was about to change. When I got home Nathan and I went to a nearby park and sat at a table in the shade to talk. It was there I told him that what they saw on his x-ray and his MRI was a tumor but we don’t know what type of cancer that it is yet. At first I could see the confusion on his face and then the tears began to fall. He said, “If its cancer does that mean I’m going to die?” I told him absolutely not! That we didn’t know everything yet and that we would fight this step by step together.
The following Monday there we all sat in the doctor’s office to finally get some answers. Nathan’s father, Joey, and my parents came along with Nathan and I for support. The doctor was amazing. She said from the look of the tumor if definitely looked like it was osteosarcoma. Then she went on to tell us that this meant a 2 year long treatment plan that included chemo, radiation, and a major surgery where he would remove half of his tibia and replace it with a titanium bone. It was overwhelming but she explained all of the steps that would follow. Scans, tests and then the biopsy of the tumor to be certain of the type of cancer that was there. Things went really quickly from there. Two days of tests and scans. Then it was time for the biopsy. They took Nathan to the OR and sedated him for this.
The best news we had heard came after that. The doctor came out to talk to us when they finished the biopsy and said that the tumor was very large, 7 cm in length to be exact. It originated in the bone and had now grown outside the bone as well but it wasn’t osteosarcoma. She was almost certain that it was a lymphoma. My question was so this is better right? And her answer was… cancer is cancer but the treatment plan for lymphoma is shorter and means that he would lose the bone in his leg. The downside also means that with lymphoma there is a greater likelihood of the cancer coming back one day. So we waited patiently and finally received the official diagnosis. Nathan had stage 2 non-hodgkins lymphoma.
I will say that I was pretty hard on myself about being the parent that didn’t take their son to the doctor when something was obviously not right. I was so sorry for pushing him to keep playing. Telling him he was fine and that is was probably shin splints. I kept reminding him that if even the smallest thing was wrong and they told him he couldn’t play anymore that his season was over. Telling him how much it would hurt the team to lose him. Ugh! I still have a hard time remembering back to all the times I brushed his pain off. Nathan wasn’t hard on me about it though. He was very sweet and only mentioned once in the waiting room of a scan appointment that this was a little bigger than shin splints. Ha!