By Kelin Hall|
Starting center Bria Carter grabbed a defensive rebound and passed the ball to her teammate. “Then I hit the ground,” Bria, now 15, remembers. She’d been kicked below the knee and buckled in pain. Floored for a few seconds, Bria got up and helped lead Chicago’s Pershing West Middle School basketball team to victory at their first game in 2009.
When Bria came home and went straight to sleep, her mother knew something was wrong. An honors student, Bria never goes to bed without finishing her homework. So Bria’s mom took her to a clinic. The physician noted something unusual on an X-ray of Bria’s femur and recommended the Carters head to an emergency room.
At the Comer Children’s Hospital emergency room at the University of Chicago Medical Center, Bria was referred to Terrance Peabody, MD, chief of orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine.
Peabody conducted a biopsy and broke the news to the Carters: Bria had osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer affecting 400 to 500 youth in the United States per year. Stephen Skapek, MD, associate professor of pediatrics, designed a chemotherapy plan. An expert in pediatric bone tumors, Skapek explained that about 85 percent of osteosarcoma tumors respond to the treatment.
When Bria found out she had cancer, she channeled her pain into writing and drawing. “It’s like nothing can tip Bria over,” said Kelly Kramer, CPON, CPNP, nurse practitioner for hematology and oncology.
Bria’s resilience was magnetic. Skapek and Peabody visited her regularly as she completed chemotherapy. Between hospital stays, the Carters knew where to turn for help. “Anything I need,” Bria’s mother said, “I call Kelly and don’t give it another thought.” Kramer says it’s her calling to support patients and families through their cancer journey, helping them to adjust to a new normal, and in Bria’s case, keeping the focus on a teenager who defeated cancer.
Despite the support, three months of chemotherapy didn’t shrink Bria’s tumor. Disappointed, Skapek and Peabody explained that the only hope of curing Bria was to amputate the lower half of her leg.
“It was almost worse than finding out I had cancer, the thought of losing part of my body that I could never get back,” Bria said. “I wouldn’t even talk about it, I always changed the subject.”
The Carters thought there must be another cure. Skapek prescribed a different type of chemotherapy. The Carters, a deeply religious family, sought a second opinion, fasted and held prayer vigils.
A month later, Bria’s tumor remained the same size. But Bria was ready to discuss amputation. She says she initially worried that people would judge her…that seeing an amputee, they would react with fear or pity. “But cancer is something that happened to me, it doesn’t have to define me,” she said. “I’m Bria, and I’ll always be Bria.”
Relieved by Bria’s resolve, the Carters called Peabody, and he operated in June. Despite ongoing chemotherapy and the struggle to move through life on crutches, Bria had fun with her friends this summer. “They’re all still here. They don’t care that I’m an amputee.”
Last Halloween, 40 costumed friends gathered around a genie with a prosthetic leg. They recognized Bria’s victory: as of October 14, she was officially cancer free.
Happy to return to a normal routine, Bria started school in November after months of homebound tutoring. “The best part was really just the fact of being back in school, meeting my teachers and seeing my friends,” she said.
Bria did suffer a setback in December when she tripped at home and suffered a fracture in the femur bone of her amputated leg. But the bone is healing and Bria is staying on top of her schoolwork, meeting with a homebound teacher. She hasn’t forgotten her next goal: to become a veterinarian or pediatric oncologist. Said Bria: “I’m really stepping up my game.”