Fernando Morales is a student athlete. Last year he was sidelined from the life he knew after he was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma. Now done with treatment Fernando is back with his teammates, sporting a positive outlook and a new appreciation for life. This is his story.
As a soccer player and member of the track and field team at my high school, running is a big part of my life. But one morning I started getting shooting pains in my knee. All of a sudden walking and running became very difficult. In the blink of an eye I lost a big part of my identity, which hurt almost as much as my leg. Almost.
I saw a doctor who put me on a physical therapy regimen and took X-rays of my knee. When that didn’t seem to help I underwent Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to see what the problem was and why it wasn’t getting better. The MRI results said it all: a tumor was growing in my right pelvis.
Less than a week later my parents and I were driving to the Dana-Farber/Children’s Hospital Cancer Center (DF/CHCC). There were so many questions floating around my head. Would I need surgery? Would I ever play sports again? Was I going to live? If you compared my sanity to a dam, the pressure in my head was building towards dangerous levels. The walls were starting to crack.
My first trip to DF/CHCC started with an initial check-up with a surgeon. I vividly remember how brightly colored the lobby was, and seeing the colorful fish in the aquarium calmed me. It was all so soothing, and helped alleviate just a little of the tension building in my brain. That tension came right back when my doctor, Dr. Megan Anderson, came in the room. Seeing her white coat and my medical records in her hand made everything feel very real for the first time.
But Dr. Anderson’s smile and easy nature took me back from the edge. I was relieved to hear that surgery wasn’t in my future, at least not right away. She explained I had Ewing sarcoma, which means a tumor in my leg was aggressively attacking my body. The minute she said it, the floodgates in my brain opened again. A day before, I’d never even heard of Ewing Sarcoma, now it was aggressively attacking me from the inside. The walls of my mental dam cracked again.
Next stop for my parents and I was a meeting with an oncologist, Dr. Joanne Wolfe, who explained to us what Ewing Sarcoma was, and how they were going to get rid of it. She was so calm and nice and told me the number of people who survive Ewing Sarcoma in this day and age is much more than it was even 10 years ago, which made me feel better. Next I met another oncologist, Dr. Michelle Lee, and a nurse practitioner who helped coordinate all my treatment. We received a plan and were booked for several more appointments, all within the next few days. In less than a week I had a port insertion placed in my body for chemotherapy lines, a computed tomography (CT) scan of my lungs and a bone scan and a biopsy of my tumor among other procedures.
The first step of my treatment was chemotherapy. I was nervous and felt very alone for my first two rounds, but as I got used to the process the next twelve rounds were no big deal, especially when I was around the DF/CHCC nurses, clinical assistants and social workers. They always made me feel at home and I really enjoyed hanging out with them; not just in a patient/nurse way, but more like friends. It made the long hours of treatment much better. During this time I also met Dr. Elizabeth Mullen, and a few other doctors and nurses who would make up my treatment team for the next year. knew the road ahead was long, but I also felt lucky knowing I had this team to support me on the journey.
After the first two chemotherapy treatments I was told I was eligible for a unique kind of treatment invented at DF/CHCC called home hydration. Once the nurses showed my family and I how to use the home hydration pack, I could go home after chemotherapy sessions, instead of having to stay overnight at the hospital! Getting to go home, spend time with my friends and sleep in my own bed made everything much easier.
But easier doesn’t mean easy. The summer following my diagnosis I started radiation treatment. The treatment left me with red, irritated patches of skin on my pelvis that eventually turned into sore grey spots; thirty-one rounds of radiation had taken its toll. It got to the point where even sitting hurt. There also were infections and fevers, even a few overnight hospital stays.
But as time went on I got better. Radiation and chemotherapy treatments got easier and overnights at the hospital were shorter. It got the point where all my hospital appointments could happen after school so I wasn’t missing as much class time for treatment. Then, less than a year after I’d first come to DF/CHCC, my doctors told me the news I’d been longing to hear: I was in remission. For 10 months I’d fought, struggled and cried but when I left the hospital that last time I came out with a smile.
This past summer has been the best of my life and I’m excited for my senior year. I’ll be back in school fulltime, which means I’ll be with my friends fulltime as well. My body is healing and when school starts I’ll be running track and playing soccer again, hopefully like nothing ever happened.
Looking back on my time at DF/CHCC it’s amazing how positive I feel about it. I’m not going to say I’m glad I had to go, but when remembering my time there I only really recall the good things: All the people I’d met, how much I laughed, the games I played in clinic with the volunteers and social workers and the maturity and appreciation for life my cancer treatment left me with. The cracking dam that was my brain has been repaired and repainted and is functioning better than ever. It’s good to be back.
If you’re about to undergo cancer treatment, my best advice would be stay positive and try to make friends in the clinic with the staff and other patients. It helps you enjoy the times when you feel OK and makes the days you don’t feel so good a little better. Remember to get plenty of rest, but also find time to play games, watch movies and participate in the activities offered by DF/CHCC—a busy mind can be a great distraction and helps you make new friends.
At the end of the day chemotherapy, radiation and surgery are the medical tools designed to help you get better, but medicine is only part of the cure. Ultimately it’s your will and attitude that will help you beat cancer and give you your life back. I can say from experience that staying positive through it all makes that transition much easier.
Learn more about Ewing sarcoma. To make an appointment at DF/CHCC, email Pedi_onc@dfci.harvard.edu or call 1-888-PEDI-ONC (1-888- 733-4662).
Next week, our Faces of Pediatric Cancer series continues with Sarah, who has faced leukemia down not once, but twice.