Sutter Cancer Centers
Mark - Gold-Medal Heart
At age 14, sports defined Mark’s life. He started swimming with his older brothers’ swim team at age four, added soccer and baseball in grade school, and continued all three sports into high school. When his knee started hurting during the summer between his freshman and sophomore high school years, he and his parents were comfortable with their doctor’s advice to ice it and take ibuprofen. But the pain didn’t go away; it got worse within a couple of weeks. Mark’s dad noticed his son limping and was immediately alarmed when Mark told him he felt a lump on his bone.
As a professor of clinical diagnostic pathology at U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Bradd knew the lump he felt on Mark’s tibia was cause for concern and got him back to the doctor for further testing. X-ray and MRI results were still inconclusive, so Bradd asked the doctor to refer Mark to an orthopedic surgeon he knew. This time, the X-ray confirmed Bradd’s fears; his son had osteosarcoma, or bone cancer.
“It was an awful moment for us,” Bradd recalls. “The doctor left the room and Mark and I just looked at each other as tears welled up.”
“My dog had died of bone cancer the year before,” says Mark. “At 14, I didn’t understand that cancer was different in dogs. All I could think was, ‘This is not good.’”
The very next day, Mark and his parents were at Sutter Children's Center, Sacramento seeing pediatric oncologist Dr. Yung Yim. “I can’t say enough about Dr. Yim. He was wonderful to us,” says Bradd. “When we walked into the office, he met us with a social worker and two of his nursing staff. Mark went to the kids’ area while Dr. Yim explained the situation to us. I told him about Mark’s dog dying of osteosarcoma, so when Mark came back in, he immediately told him that osteosarcoma was not the same in people as in dogs.”
Mark remembers his relief, “He told me I had a 75 percent chance of survival and that it was the other way around in dogs. I thought 75 percent was pretty good odds.”
“Mark was amazing through all of this time,” says Bradd. “I can honestly say that if I one day find out I have cancer, I hope I can handle it with half the dignity and maturity Mark showed.”
After a biopsy at UCSF confirmed the osteosarcoma diagnosis, Mark’s doctors wanted him to have chest X-rays to confirm the cancer had not spread to his lungs. Bradd recalls, “One of the things I remember is going golfing with Mark while we waited for chest X-ray results to come back. We were on the 10 th tee when we got the call telling us there were three spots on Mark’s lungs and that he would need to have chest surgery to check them out. At that point, I was falling apart, but when I asked Mark what he wanted to do, he said, ‘Let’s keep golfing.’ And he actually played better on the back nine.”
Thankfully, the spots turned out to be nothing serious and Mark started chemotherapy shortly after the surgery. Dr. Yim knew the challenges ahead and suggested Mark take a year off school, but Mark wouldn’t have it. Instead, he took two easy classes that he could attend between treatments and started an independent study program for his other classes.
“I was really worried about how my friends would react,” Mark says. “But they did a great job of not making a big deal of it. They hung out with me between treatments and came to visit me in the hospital. The teachers at Davis High School were very supportive, too, so that all helped a lot.”
Unfortunately, the chemotherapy didn’t have the hoped-for effect. “Instead of shrinking, the tumor was growing and spreading,” says Bradd. “Dr. Yim and the other specialists agreed that Mark needed to have his leg amputated above the tumor.”
Mark says his reaction to the news still surprises people, “Throughout the chemo, I knew the tumor was still part of me. It was a relief to have it taken off so that I didn’t have to look down at the thing that was killing me anymore.”
The amputation was the turning point for Mark. He was fitted with a metal prosthesis and started on the road to recovery, graduating with his class and receiving the Golden Heart Award, an award given by the City of Davis to youth who have overcome personal challenges. Mark is studying nutrition science at Cal Poly and hopes to go onto nursing school and become a nurse practitioner, but he has to fit his studies around training as a swimmer for the U.S. Olympic Team’s Paralympic Division. Mark competed at the Athens Olympics and holds the U.S. Paralympic record for the 100 butterfly, earned at the world championships in South Africa.
“I like to stay active,” Mark says. “I mountain bike and ride my bike to school regularly, and I swim, of course. But I also water ski and snow ski, and I’m going to start learning how to surf. I’m really excited about that!”
“He also got me to go white water rafting with him,” says Bradd. “I was scared spitless, but he thought it was a blast—and now he wants to sky dive. But the thing that amazes me most is that he wants to go into nursing. He didn’t want to go anywhere near a hospital for a long time after his chemo. Now he’s hoping to work as a volunteer at Sutter Children's Center, Sacramento so that he can get into nursing school and eventually help others deal with the kinds of challenges he faced and overcame.”
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