June 29, 2020 marks the start of Sarcoma Awareness Week. There is no better way to increase awareness than to hear from a Sarcoma Warrior. Jeff has been gracious enough to share his remarkable story with SarcomaStrong in efforts to further his mission of being of service to current and future Warriors. What follows is Jeff’s personal story from life before an Osteosarcoma diagnosis, his not so atypical treatment of this rare disease, and beyond.
My name is Jeff Bryant and I am a 6’8, 24-year old former high school basketball player from Point Pleasant Beach, New Jersey. During junior and senior year at Point Pleasant Beach High School, the team I played and won the Group 1 State Championship, Shore Conference Championship, and back-to-back Sectional Championships. We won two championship rings each in these two years, something that most athletes do not have in a lifetime. The next plan was to make even more memorable moments like these at the college level. After graduating, I was going to attend prep school at Cheshire Academy in Connecticut to earn a scholarship. The year after, I would continue my basketball career at whichever collegiate program that would grant me one. Little did I know however, my life would soon take a sharp turn down an unexpected path. The fast change in direction would completely change my life forever.
The first week of June in 2014 became the moment when my world completely changed in front of me. My father noticed that my left thigh appeared larger in mass than my right. Initially, we thought we were favoring my left leg when I was lifting weights, so I worked out my lower body with one leg at a time. However, my bigger leg was weaker than my smaller one, which did not make any sense. On Thursday, June 5, I underwent an x-ray of my left femur in hope that we could find some answers to this mysterious anomaly. The following day on Friday, June 6, 2014 my mother called me at school. She told me I needed to sign myself out and head home immediately, so I did so. When I arrived back home, I saw my mother hanging up my thigh x-rays against the window to show me the results. On my left femur was a 38 centimeter long tumor, which covered basically the entire bone, bordered with my knee, and was three centimeters short of my hip. As my mother revealed this to me, I did not know how to react or what to expect to happen next. All I knew was there was clearly an issue and it needed to be fixed as soon as possible.
On the morning of Monday June 9th, 2014, my parents, older sister and I traveled up to Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City for the first time. We met my primary oncologist for the first time, along with his team of co-workers who would share in their efforts to medically treat my cancer. We also came across my orthopedic surgeon, who little did I know at the time would become the person who saved my leg. This group of doctors required me to undergo every single type of test anyone could possibly take in the entire hospital. This included x-ray, bone scan, ct scan, echocardiogram, MRI, hearing test, etc. All of the different tests I had to go through lasted three long days of commuting back and forth to Sloan. After the doctors examined these scans, my surgeon performed a biopsy, which occurred on June 18. In such a procedure, he carefully removed some tumor cells to be studied in the lab. The result of the biopsy served as the final confirmation of my diagnosis, and would determine how we were going to fix this unknown problem.
The next day on June 19, my family and I returned for my follow-up appointment to finally find out what was lurking inside my left thigh. I had been diagnosed with a rare bone cancer known as osteosarcoma. It was not the news we had hoped to hear, because now there was definitely going to be a long road ahead of me. My treatment would consist of one ten-week cycle of chemotherapy in attempt to trim the tumor, and then the surgery would take place, followed by two more ten-week chemo cycles. In total, my treatment was going to last around nine months; given there would be no interruptions to my treatment plan. During the entire time prior to surgery, I had to walk half-weight bearing with crutches. Such instance was due to the fact that Osteosarcoma feeds on your healthy bone, causing it to become brittle. This causes the bone to become more at risk of breaking, and an injury to the tumor is the last thing a patient wants to happen. If the tumor area breaks, the cancer will spread rapidly throughout the entire body, and chances of survival drastically decrease. Therefore, my parents had to become overprotective of me, which was not very flattering for an 18-year-old young man like myself.
The day after my final diagnosis was my graduation from Point Pleasant Beach. It was hard to believe that my years in high school had actually come to an end. I never would have imagined it would end with me as a cancer patient, but yet that turned out to be the case. I attended the ceremony in a wheel chair because it took place on our football field, which consisted of very bumpy grass. The entire crowd stood and cheered as I accepted my diploma. A few people even chanted “J-E-F-F Jeff Jeff” which was the name chant they gave me when I played basketball. Our class president also gave me the honor to help him lead the cap tonsil procedure. After the ceremony, everyone gave me hugs and best wishes with treatment. Point Beach was a real home to me, and I am forever grateful to have gone there. Although my time there did not end the best way possible, so many wonderful memories were made here. There were also a number of great people who grew to become some of my best friends. No matter where life takes me after my cancer is gone, I will always remember all of the amazing things that came out of my high school experience.
Monday June 23, 2014 was my first day of chemotherapy. My mother and I left our house at 5:20am to beat the morning traffic on the way into the city. Once arriving at Sloan, we met with my oncologist to discuss my chemotherapy. The chemicals I would be given are Doxorubicin, Cisplatin, and Methotrexate. Doxorubicin was what killed off my white blood cells and caused a condition known as neutropenia (little to no white blood cells). It was also known to weaken the heart and increase the risk of potential heart problems in the future. Cisplatin caused nausea, and was notable for damaging the bladder and urinary track. Methotrexate was notable for forming mouth sores and threatened to potentially damage the kidneys. I would alternate Doxorubicin and Cisplatin together and methotrexate every other week, with two off weeks in between each chemo session. I needed to urinate as much as possible to flush the chemo out so it would perform its task on killing the cancer without creating harmful side effects. While I was on Methotrexate, I needed to maintain an alkaline diet and keep my body’s PH level above a seven. If my body was acidic, than the Methotrexate would become lethal.
After meeting with my oncologist, it was time to start the fight. My mother and I walked over to the outpatient chemotherapy area and checked in at the desk there. We were assigned to my chemo bedroom where I met my outpatient nurse for the first time. My nurse injected two IVs through a port, which was implanted into my chest during the biopsy as a previous precaution to the likelihood diagnosis. In came the hydration, and then my first dose of chemotherapy. My mother and I both entered into treatment with a positive attitude as we told ourselves we were going to beat this cancer. At this point, I still did not know what to expect, I only knew that whatever I was getting was going to help me get back to good health. My first ten-week cycle of chemo came and went, which lasted for the entire summer of 2014. The entire community rallied behind me as I commuted with my mother back and forth to hospital. Numerous family friends brought over meals for us for when we came back home from long days of treatment. Everyone who knew my family or me would also come over every weekend to come show his or her support and bring gifts they thought would benefit me. People even made bracelets for me, which were yellow for the bone cancer color with blue lettering that said “J-E-F-F Jeff Jeff Jeff”. It was so incredibly nice to know that I was not fighting my bone cancer alone, and people were there for me no matter what happened.
On September 10, 2014, I went in for a thirteen-hour surgery to remove the tumor. My femur and knee were replaced with a titanium rod and an artificial knee. I was hospitalized for ten days, when I had to work through severe pain to get up from bed and begin working again. The tumor was finally out of me, but there was still much to done about the cancer cells that were spreading beyond my femur. In fact, my doctors had also spotted a few cancerous nodules that spread to my lungs, and soon surgery was needed to remove those as well. I underwent two lung surgeries on November 6, 2014, and January 15, 2015. The few tiny areas of cancer that metastasized there had already been killed by the chemo, but it was still good to have also them removed. The rest of my time getting chemo went by faster than I ever could have imagined. During this time, I got to gather with other teenage patients in the teen and young adult lounge of my hospital floor. It was there that I got to make some special friends who I was able to bond with and share similar stories. Finally on Saint Patrick’s Day of 2015, my nine months of chemotherapy finally ended and I was declared cancer free. Words could not describe how it felt to finally be done with cancer treatment, but it was an incredibly awesome feeling to say the very least. It was time to move forward in life.
My victory over cancer though did come with a price. I could no longer play basketball with my new leg condition as the rod that was placed in me couldn’t tolerate such impact. Fortunately, there was another passion I always had since I was a young boy. I have also always wanted to work for a history museum, as I have tremendous passion for both history and museums. Therefore, I decided that this was what I was going to do next with my life. However, my days with basketball did not completely come to an end. In fact, during the entire winter season I was going through treatment, I assisted my high school basketball coach with my former team. Being an assistant coach with my high school team not only gave me something fun to do and kept me in touch with old teammates, but it also opened some opportunities form me. I had been recorded on local newspaper articles several times, and was even filmed on NJ-12 news to share my story to the public.
After one of my newspaper articles came out, something came in my high school’s mail for me. It was a five hundred dollar check and a letter from a pediatric cancer organization named the Frances Foundation. My parents and I met with the founder of this foundation, who sent us along with my best friend from basketball to the 2015 Final Four in Indianapolis. Final Four weekend was the absolute trip of a lifetime, as I got to experience the games in real life and meet a few famous players and coaches in between events. The Frances Foundation continues to be apart of our family as we often attend their events.
In the fall of 2015, I began my freshman year at Flagler College in Saint Augustine, Florida. As promising as the near future started to look for me, I would soon realize that my medical story was far from over. After only two months of my freshman year at Flagler, the prosthesis that replaced my femur suddenly loosened from my hip. At that point, I began to suffer the most horrendous agony I could have ever possibly imagined. The pain was so incredibly terrible, that I needed to return home and return to Sloan Kettering for further treatment. Somehow, I managed to fly home from Florida to New Jersey and travel straight up to New York. I was hospitalized for nine days just to ease the pain before finally retuning home. My surgeon decided to have a custom-made prosthesis produced for me, which will be much bigger and sturdier than my previous one. This required waiting three long months in dire agony that led me to sleep downstairs and basically prevented my ability to leave the house. My second femur and knee replacement occurred on January 8, 2016, and this was a rare instance where I felt better immediately after surgery than before. I missed my entire freshman year that school year, and would not return to Flagler until the following fall.
I returned to Flagler for all of my sophomore year undisturbed. It appeared that all of my setbacks were finally behind me, but my fight only continued to occur. In the summer of 2017, the screws connected to my hip got loose, and I had to miss the following fall semester to have them replaced. My third leg surgery occurred on August 15, 2017 to replace the loosened screws. It was frustrating to have to miss my third semester of college just to have a few screws replaced, but I knew it needed to be done so I could benefit in the long term. I returned to Flagler once more in the spring of 2018 in hope that things would get easier from that point on. However, the spring I returned from my screw replacement surgery only turned out to be my worst semester being in school. I had finished that semester with a 1.7 GPA, and my overall GPA dropped from a 3.1 to a 2.8. This was because I tried to balance my time between four upper level history classes, physical therapy, managing the basketball team at Flagler, and becoming a founding father of a fraternity. Such instance taught me a lesson about “stretching myself too thin”, and I was forced to drop out of my efforts to help establish a fraternity and manage Flagler’s basketball team.
The following school year came and went undisturbed, but the summer of 2018 brought forth yet another setback. My artificial knee came loose, and I had to get that replaced. However, this time I was able to get this operation done on July 25, which was four weeks before I returned for the upcoming fall semester. It was just enough time to recover and head back down to Flagler. It was the fourth and last leg surgery that I needed to undergo in order to recover from the effects of my bone cancer. I went through another semester undisturbed, and it finally appeared that my long fight was finally over. On February 8, 2019, I completed physical therapy after four years. I performed my physical therapy both at Mullaney and Associated in Matawan, New Jersey, and First Coast Rehab down the road from my college in Saint Augustine, Florida. I started at my facility in New Jersey and ended it in Florida. At last, I had finally overcome my long-lasting, difficult battle with my health. The past two years have been an era of consistent improvement for me. I not only finished rehab, but also tremendously increased my GPA. I made deans list in three out of my last four semesters, and raised my overall average up from a 2.8 to a 3.2.
I graduated from Flagler with my degree in Public History this past spring, although it needed to be celebrated in quarantine due to the coronavirus. I will continue my education at George Washington University in Washington, DC to pursue a master’s in museum studies. While there, I aim to fulfill my lifelong dream of working for a history museum with all of the opportunities that will be offered to me. Three of my favorite professors at Flagler put in a ton of time and effort in writing letters of recommendation for me, while also helping me write my personal statement for my application. The assistance they provided for me was a major contribution in helping me get accepted into grad school.
As an inspiration of the challenges I faced the previous few years, I currently operate an instagram blog with the username, @beatbonecancer. Its purpose is to give guidance to others who are also battling bone cancer, along with raise awareness for it. I hope that by doing so, I can build a community of bone cancer fighters and supporters. I also want to give current patients something I did not have when I first started, which is someone to let them know what they can expect from treatment. I feel that by serving such guidance to those going through what I went through, they can feel more hopeful that they too can beat bone cancer.
There are many people that I want to thank for helping me reach this point of my life. I want to thank my entire family, especially to my mother for always being there with me through all of my treatments, my father for continuing to provide for this family during troubling times, my sister for helping out around the house when we needed her, and my grandparents for keeping me company whenever my family needed to leave the house. I also want to thank the doctors, nurses, and staff who granted me the best at Memorial Sloan Kettering. Also, thank you to my two physical therapists in New Jersey and Florida. I even want to thank all of my friends and instructors both at Flagler and Point Beach for supporting me through challenging times. I want to thank the Frances Foundation for giving me splendid opportunities to have fun during my tough stages and for allowing me to be a part of a second family of people who also know cancer well. Last but not least, I give my thanks to God for guiding me through these challenging years. All who are mentioned contributed to my ability to stand where I am now and pursue my desired future. I would not have made it through everyone of the challenges bone cancer gave me without them.