Virginia-Finigan Carter has a knack for turning things around.
At 13 years old, she fought through leg pain while preparing for a state gymnastics competition. “I felt a pain in my knee, but I didn’t tell my mother until afterwards because I wanted to compete,” says Virginia.
What she didn’t realize at the time was that her strength and perseverance through the pain would serve her well over the next few years, for a completely different reason.
After explaining the pain during a doctor’s visit, her primary care provider referred her to a local hospital to make sure nothing was torn. While her MRI scan didn’t show a tear, it indicated that Virginia had a cancerous bone tumor called osteosarcoma.
She was quickly referred to Megan Anderson, MD, attending orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Bone Program, who understood that Virginia wanted to focus on what she could do, rather than what she couldn’t do. …
By Joshua Feblowitz
It all began with a troublesome pain near Caitlynne McGaff’s right knee. At the time, it didn’t seem like there was anything to worry about: An occasional bruise or bump was typical for the energetic 7-year-old, who was involved in a wide range of athletic activities, including gymnastics, ice-skating, basketball and soccer. The pain in her leg, her parents thought, was no doubt the result of this active lifestyle, a minor injury that would go away on its own. Yet week after week, Caitlynne’s leg continued to bother her.
It was only by chance during a routine check-up that the issue came to the attention of the family’s doctor. What followed was a battery of medical tests to find the source of her persistent pain. Day after day, Caitlynne’s right leg was poked, prodded and scanned by an array of medical specialists. “I was definitely scared,” recalls Caitlynne. “I was going from test to hospital to nurse to doctor, being asked questions.” After a whirlwind of medical detective work, her doctors shared the unthinkable diagnosis: cancer.
Caitlynne had a bone tumor known as an osteosarcoma growing just above her knee, the most common location for this aggressive tumor. The eighth most common cancer in children, osteosarcoma is still a rarity, affecting only about 600 children per year in the United States. To have a chance at a cure, Caitlynne would need intensive treatment, including both chemotherapy and surgery.
There was hardly any time to process this news. Chemotherapy started right away, a jarring new reality that put a stop to her many activities. The treatment made her hair fall out and left her listless and constantly nauseous. Yet through it all Caitlynne stayed strong with the help of her family who did whatever they could to make the long hospital stay more bearable. “My dad started doing what he called a ‘brave bank,'” she says with a smile. “Every time someone said, ‘you’re so brave’ he had to give me a quarter. It was little things like that helped relieve my fear and stress.”
Weeks into Caitlynne’s chemotherapy regimen discussions began about the second phase of treatment. The chemotherapy could only do so much; the tumor, as well as the bone and tissue around it, would have to be removed to give Caitlynne the best shot at a cure. Children’s Hospital Boston orthopedic surgeon Mark Gebhardt, MD, explained the options to the family: Caitlynne could have an allograft (a donated bone), an implant made of metal and plastic, or a type of partial amputation known as a rotationplasty.