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Beating a Teenage Cancer That Attacks the Bones

June 20, 2023

Michael G. and Dr. James Wittig

Teenage boys are the essence of vitality and vigor — and Michael G. was no exception. He spent his days playing pickup basketball and football with friends. He also enjoyed lifting weights at the gym to build a strong, healthy body. But in the fall of 2022, 17-year-old Michael began to feel a sharp pain behind his left knee when doing squats at the gym.

“I thought maybe I tore my meniscus or ACL,” Michael says, acknowledging that these are common injuries for teenage athletes. “I mentioned it to my parents, but I continued to play sports and weight train. Over the next couple of months, the pain grew worse, so we thought it was time to get it checked out.”

Looking for Answers

Amy, Michael’s mom, reached out to their family orthopedist Frank Liggio, MD, and the X-rays showed some suspicious results — a lesion in the back of Michael’s knee. An MRI was immediately scheduled, along with an appointment with one of the nation’s top orthopedic oncologists, James C. Wittig, MD, chairman of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Morristown Medical Center and medical director of Orthopedic Surgery, Orthopedic Oncology and Sarcoma Surgery at Atlantic Health System, an expert in limb-sparing surgery.

“Michael’s orthopedist knew what he was looking at and moved quickly,” says Dr. Wittig, who recommended an MRI, CT scans, bone scan and an open surgical biopsy. Within a matter of days, the family was in Dr. Wittig’s office for some sobering news. Michael had a rare form of bone cancer known as a parosteal osteosarcoma, a slow-growing tumor in the femur bone behind his knee.

“The biopsy showed it was a low-grade cancer that was unlikely to spread to other sites,” says Dr. Wittig. “The tumor was very extensive, wrapping around the femur and knee joint and growing along the ligaments into the knee, but I knew I could remove the cancer safely and save Michael’s leg.”

Michael says, “I was scared, in complete disbelief, and so emotional. But Dr. Wittig broke it down and comforted us. He was so compassionate and knowledgeable. He got down on his knee, put his arm around me, and told us three things. He said, ‘do not look online.’ He said he would save my leg. And he promised that I would come out of this a winner, and everything would be ok.”

Amy adds, “Dr. Wittig was so confident that he could get my son through this that we trusted him completely. We left his office feeling so much better than we had when we arrived, and we were ready to take the next step with him.”

Care, Confidence and Compassion

Michael was admitted into Morristown Medical Center for a biopsy, which confirmed Dr. Wittig’s diagnosis, and the surgery was scheduled, a day that Amy recalls as being one of the longest of her life.

“The angst I felt waiting for my son’s post-surgery results from Dr. Wittig was unbearable,” says Amy. “After the six-hour procedure, Dr. Wittig came out of the operating room, knelt down beside me, held my hand, and told me everything went phenomenally well. He said the operation took a little longer because the cancer had spread to Michael’s tibia, but he was confident that it was contained — and gone.”

Recovery Takes a Team

As Michael’s long road to recovery began, Dr. Wittig and his team of medical experts checked in on him daily. Orthopedic oncology nurse practitioner Connie Chong, ortho-oncology nurse Helen Wittig, physician assistants Michael Rehal and Kaitlin Zeedyk, and physical therapist Stephanie Preston, were all part of Michael’s journey back to health. Michael says, “I felt like we were all in this together, they all cared about me so much. Everybody was so invested in me.”

After six days post-surgery, Michael was able to bear weight and stand on his new titanium knee for the first time, and more progress came quickly after that. He was soon out of bed and walking with assistance, then discharged with a home health aide and a rigorous six-week in-home physical therapy regimen to increase his strength and mobility.

Slowly, as the fear and uncertainty faded, Michael and his parents began to, once again, set their sights on Michael’s future. He returned to the gym and his favorite sports, finding ways to exercise that wouldn’t strain his new titanium knee. He also continues to reach new milestones with his physical therapist Stephanie and will continue to see Dr. Wittig over the next five years for follow-up visits.

Feeling Blessed

Michael will become a Nittany Lion next year, as part of the freshman class at Penn State University’s main campus. And when he sums up how he’s feeling these days, it seems he only needs one word — lucky.

“I am so grateful to have Dr. Wittig in my life,” says Michael, who recalls lying on the operating room table before drifting off from anesthesia and looking up Dr. Wittig’s big blue eyes and compassionate and confident expression. “Dr. Wittig’s face is seared into my mind; I call him Avatar. Those huge blue eyes staring down at me telling me everything is going to be ok was all I needed to believe in him. He’s Avatar. He’s superhuman.”


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