Ask 15-year-old Sheila Fraser of South Bend, Ind., what was special about the fourth grade, and you’ll hear how she became a level 7 gymnast and an undefeated 400-meter track star.
She might tell you she was diagnosed with cancer.
“One Saturday morning, I was getting ready for gymnastics practice when I saw this big bump on my leg,” she mentions in a school report.
Sheila’s dad thought she’d hurt it at gymnastics or track; after all, she’d sprained her ankle three weeks earlier. Her mom, a bit more worried, took Sheila to a walk-in clinic.
“They showed me the X-ray and said it could be a bone cyst or a tumor. But, they wouldn’t know for sure until Monday,” Maureen Fraser said. “When we went back, the doctor took us into his office and said it was osteosarcoma. He’d already called our family doctor, and she’d been in touch with Riley Hospital.”
In May 2004, Riley’s Dr. Daniel Wurtz confirmed osteosarcoma, the third most common cancer in adolescence. In preparation for surgery, he ordered six rounds of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor.
“It was really tough because I got sick off the chemo and couldn’t keep anything down, not even liquids,” Sheila said. “Plus, I had to stay off my leg because the tumor made it prone to breaking.”
Sheila also was hospitalized several times for infections. Surgeons removed the tumor in August. Due to its size, they replaced Sheila’s knee and two-thirds of her femur. Twelve more rounds of chemotherapy followed in an attempt to kill any remaining cancer cells, as osteosarcoma can recur elsewhere.
By February 2005, Sheila was doing well.
One year later, the cancer returned; this time in her left lung, revealed during a routine CAT scan. Surgeons removed the tumor, and Sheila underwent four more rounds of chemo.
The cancer showed up a third time eight months later in her left lung. Chemotherapy wasn’t an option.
“She’s had all the chemo her body can safely take,” said her mom. “All we can do now is go in every three months for a CAT scan.”
So far, everything’s been fine.
“She has to have the rod in her leg lengthened every so often, but that’s it,” her mom said. “She can’t do gymnastics or track, but she does cheerleading at Marian High School. It’s hard for her to watch the other girls do stunts when she was such a great gymnast.”
The entire family now roots for Riley Hospital. Sheila’s sister takes part in the Saint Mary’s Dance Marathon; her parents are advocates in the South Bend area; and Sheila speaks publicly about her experience.
“If Riley hadn’t been there, Sheila may have lost her leg,” her mom said. “Riley is a huge blessing.”