The Resilience of Cancer Warriors
- Two-time cancer survivor Alex Parra, 20, decided to amputate his leg via a coin toss. That decision might’ve saved his life since doctors discovered his cancer had spread upon amputation.
- Parra has beaten both osteosarcoma and lung cancer, and now he’s training to be a Paralympic athlete.
- Resilience is not an uncommon trait amongst cancer warriors. Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, says her cancer journey helped her uncover “some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities.”
Parra’s cancer journey first began in 2016 when he went to the doctor with severe knee pain.Read More
After a multitude of tests, he was diagnosed with a type of bone cancer called osteosarcoma and began chemotherapy treatments.
“It was the last thing I expected,” he said of the bone cancer diagnosis. “Who thinks their junior year of high school is going to start with chemo? The chemo sucked. It killed my body to cure my body.'”
Unfortunately, the chemo was not working as anticipated and Parra was left to make a very tough choice: get a knee replacement or have his whole leg amputated. That’s when he flipped a coin.
“I had no idea what to do so I flipped a coin and it landed on amputation,” he said. “If it hadn’t, I would be dead.”
View this post on Instagram
Parra’s amputation turned out to be crucial because doctors discovered his cancer had spread upon the removal of his leg, but his recovery was still quite a process.
“Learning how to walk again was so hard – I had to learn how to do something that I thought I knew so well,” he said. “I never, ever wanted to give up so I stayed positive and kept pushing as much as I could.”
Come May 17, 2017, Parra was told he was cancer free. But, sadly, he would have to wage another battle against a different form of the disease in the following year.
After a routine scan days after his graduation in 2018, Para was told he had stage four lung cancer and given three months to live with a 10 percent survival rate. But Para is a fighter. And after surgery to remove the tumor, he was declared cancer free once more on January 11, 2019.
View this post on Instagram
Now, the two-time cancer survivor is three years cancer free and training to be a Paralympic swimmer with the help of the Challenged Athletes Foundation.
“One thing I’ve learned from cancer is that you can never give up,” he said. “I was placed in front of the impossible but I chose to keep fighting.
“All I’ve ever wanted to do is prove the doctors wrong and defy the odds. I’ve done that now and I couldn’t be prouder.”
The term sarcoma is used to describe an array of more than 70 rare cancers that begin in the bones and the soft tissues, such as muscles. This diverse group of diseases accounts for only about one percent of tumors in adults and just over 10 percent of tumors in children.
The main symptom of sarcomas is generally a slow-growing, painless mass, but symptoms can be hard to detect as soft tissue sarcomas are typically painless and bone sarcomas can be mistakenly diagnosed as orthopedic injuries.
“Unfortunately, most sarcomas do not cause many of the symptoms that may be associated with other cancers,” Dr. Dale Shepard, director of the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute Phase I and Sarcoma Programs, tells SurvivorNet. “A mass the size of a golf ball or larger and growing should be evaluated as a potential sarcoma. It’s important that patients who do have symptoms are not dismissive of them.”
Types of Sarcoma Cancers
The word sarcoma refers to a large array of bone and soft tissue cancers, and individual cancers within that set go by unique names. Some of the types of sarcomas include:
- Ewing’s sarcoma is a cancer that typically occurs in and around the bones, often in the arms or legs, or the bones of the pelvis. It most commonly occurs in children and young adults.
- Kaposi sarcoma is a very rare type of cancer that causes lesions on the skin, in lymph nodes, organs, and the mucous membranes of the mouth, nose, and throat. It typically affects people with compromised immune systems, such as those with HIV.
- Epithelioid sarcoma is a type of soft tissue cancer that grows slowly. It is likely to begin under the skin of areas like the finger, hand, forearm, lower part of the leg, or foot.
- Synovial sarcoma, also called malignant synovioma, is a cancer that can form soft tissues such as muscle or ligaments, commonly close to joints or in areas like the arm, leg, or foot.
- Osteogenic sarcoma, also called osteosarcoma, is the most common type of cancer that starts in the bones. This is the type of cancer Parra had.
- Spindle cell sarcoma is very rare, comprising as little as 2 percent of all primary bone cancer cases. It can start in the bone, often in the arms, legs, and pelvis, and usually occurs in people over 40.
What Is Lung Cancer?
Lung cancer, the second most common type of cancer, is the leading cause of cancer deaths for men and women in the United States. Diagnosis and treatment of the disease can be tricky since symptoms often don’t appear until the cancer has spread. An initial symptom, for example, could be as serious as a seizure if the lung cancer has already spread to the brain. But other symptoms can include increased coughing, chest pain, unexplained weight loss, shortness of breath, wheezing, losing your voice or persistent infections like bronchitis or pneumonia.
The two main types of lung cancer are non-small cell, which makes up 85 percent of cases, and small-cell. These types act differently and, accordingly, require different types of treatment. Dr. Patrick Forde, a thoracic oncologist at Johns Hopkins Medicine, previously told SurvivorNet about how distinguishing between the two types – and their subtypes – could be very beneficial.
“Within that non-small cell category, there’s a subtype called non-squamous adenocarcinoma, and that’s the group of patients for whom genetic testing is very important on the tumor,” he explains. “Genetic testing is looking for mutations in the DNA, in the tumor, which are not present in your normal DNA.”
The Resilience of Cancer Warriors
At SurvivorNet, we get to share stories of resilience all the time because there’s no shortage of brave cancer warriors holding onto hope in the face of adversity.
“One thing I’ve learned from cancer is that you can never give up,” Parra said. “I was placed in front of the impossible but I chose to keep fighting.”
Danielle Ripley-Burgess, a two-time colon cancer survivor, is another resilient cancer survivor like Fitting. She was first diagnosed with colon cancer in high school and proceeded to beat the disease not once, but twice. Understandably so, Ripley-Burgess has had to work through a lot of complex emotions that came with her cancer journey. Even still, she’s always managed to look at life with a positive attitude.
“As I’ve worked through the complex emotions of cancer, I’ve uncovered some beautiful things: Wisdom. Love. Life purpose. Priorities,” she preiously told SurvivorNet. “I carry a very real sense that life is short, and I’m grateful to be living it! This has made me optimistic. Optimism doesn’t mean that fear, pain and division don’t exist – they do. Our world is full of negativity, judgment, and hate. Optimism means that I believe there’s always good to be found despite the bad, and this is what my life is centered around.”
She moves through life with a sense of purpose unique to someone who’s been faced with the darkest of times. Happily in remission today, she’s determined to, one day, leave the world better than she found it.
“We can choose to stay positive, treat others with respect and look for the light in spite of the darkness,” she said. “This type of attitude and behavior will lead to the kind of legacies I believe all of us hope to leave.”