By Tomise Martin, Staff Writer
In 1987, Lisa Richardson, then 14, was like many teenagers. She had a busy social life in her hometown of Metairie, La., enjoyed volleyball and cheerleading, and had a strong relationship with her older brother.
However, that spring, she began experiencing a sporadic pain in her left hip that would change her life. First, she and her parents thought it was a complication from playing multiple sports, and they treated it with Ibuprofen and a heating pad that alleviated the pain.
When it persisted, Richardson's dad took her to a local chiropractor, who found an abnormality in an X-ray. Further tests revealed a fist-sized tumor at the base of her spine. Richardson was referred to a New Orleans hospital for a biopsy.
"That night was a blur of emotions. First, I refused to believe what my parents were telling me," Richardson says. "The pain felt like strained muscles. Now, there was a possibility of cancer. I thought it was some cruel joke. I was too young for this."
'You have cancer'
The next day the biopsy confirmed the tumor was advanced-stage bone cancer called dedifferentiated chondroblastic osteogenic sarcoma. Her parents, Lee and Betsy, were told their daughter had three to six months to live without treatment and maybe two years with an aggressive, experimental regimen. The next step was telling her that she had cancer.
"I knew the result was either 'yes,' I had cancer or, 'no,' I did not," Richardson says. "My dad told me that the tumor was malignant, but we would move forward and focus on getting the best treatment."
The three decided Richardson would be a part of every decision, as long as she felt comfortable. When doctors explained the only alternative was chemotherapy that might extend her life by two years, she and her family opted for a second opinion.
Choosing the right hospital and treatment
Her dad called hospitals around the world in search of other treatment options. One week later, Richardson was admitted for treatment to the Children's Cancer Hospital at M. D. Anderson.
Led by Norman Jaffe, M.D., now professor emeritus at the Children's Cancer Hospital, a team of doctors planned to shrink the tumor with chemotherapy, then perform a hemipelvectomy, a surgery to amputate her left leg.
After months of flying between New Orleans and Houston for therapy, Richardson and her parents received good news. The tumor was finally operable. Before the surgery, Lee gave clear directions to the surgeons: if they could save his daughter's leg, do it.
Hours into the procedure, the surgeons found that opportunity. Lee and Betsy had two options: to leave the leg intact and risk keeping some cancer; or to amputate the leg and any undetected disease. They chose to save their daughter's leg.
Managing side effects and recovery
The following months were challenging for Richardson, but her parents supported her in every way.
"My parents helped me physically, mentally and emotionally," Richardson says. "When it was painful for a sheet to touch my toes, they tied it away from my feet. Most important, they encouraged me to concentrate on plans after my recovery, which helped me tremendously."
Lee and Betsy also helped Richardson readjust to life after her cancer. While she was still recovering from surgery, they turned their home into a teenage-friendly place. They also allowed her friends to ask questions and showed them how to collapse and open the wheelchair so Richardson could go out with them.
Life after recovery
Since building her strength, Richardson can walk for extended periods of time with assistance but uses her wheelchair for longer distances. At 36, she is living out her childhood dream as an elementary school teacher in North Carolina. She maintains that her diagnosis, treatment and wheelchair help her be a better teacher.
"It has taken me a while to get to this point, but I can honestly say that cancer has given more than it has taken away," Richardson says. "In my wheelchair, I'm at eye level with my students and can help them learn to be comfortable around those with disabilities."
Now engaged, Richardson looks forward to planning her wedding and starting a life with her fiancé, Russell Nelson. They plan to marry late this summer.
Q&A: Advice on caring for a child with cancer
M. D. Anderson resources:
Bone cancer (Sarcoma)
Bone cancer(National Cancer Institute)
All About Bone Cancer (American Cancer Society)
Pediatric Cancer Survivor Is Living Her Dream
By Tomise Martin, Staff Writer
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