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Still beautiful. Kathleen with brother Brian, dad Jim and mom Deb during the period when chemo left her bald and she refused to wear wigs and scarves.
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Good news all around. Besides her own apartment, Kathleen has plans to work with young cancer patients.
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Today’s Kathleen. She’s glowing as she begins new studies and a new future.
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Portrait of a survivor
Portrait of a survivor. Determined to walk unassisted, Kathleen vowed she’d only use help when she took her father’s arm to walk down the aisle at her wedding.
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Happy ending. The battle over, Kathleen shares a sunny moment with mom and family pet, Buddy.
She was young and beautiful. The picture of health. Then, three weeks into her freshman year, she knew something was wrong with her leg. Something serious. With real pain. And unexplained swelling. In a matter of days, she got the news that would change her life: At 19, she had cancer. Little did she know that before the ordeal was over, she would go on to amaze her doctors.
Friday, Sept. 5, 2003: It should have been the sweetest time in her life.
In fact, Kathleen Moras seemed to have everything. The only daughter of Jim and Deb Moras of Roanoke County, she enjoyed a great relationship with her parents and 26-year-old brother Brian. She’d just started her freshman year at Concord University in West Virginia. And, to top it off, she – with mom Deb as company — was celebrating the Labor Day weekend with a trip to Williamsburg to see her sweetheart Paul.
But everything was not perfect.
“I’d had swelling and soreness in my left leg all through my senior year at Cave Spring,” she recalls. “I got through it by taking Motrin. Lots of Motrin.” A few years earlier, she’d suffered a knee injury and had three months of physical therapy. Oddly, no one had taken X-rays. And being young and supposedly invincible, she believed the leg problem was simply a pulled muscle from her running regimen.
“Plus there was flu in my dorm,” she recalls, “so I thought maybe that was it.”
But excuses were wearing thin. And things were getting worse.
“She came out of the bathroom and couldn’t put on her jeans,” Deb recalls of the trip. “Her leg was that swollen. She asked me to feel it and it was like a rock, just a mass of hardness in the top of her thigh.”
Deb reassured her daughter that they‘d see a doctor when they got home.
The Nightmare Begins
Holiday over, on Tuesday morning, Deb called the Moras family practice doctor for an appointment, explaining that Kathleen’s leg was really bothering her and, since she was only two hours away, she could easily drive home for an appointment. The office didn’t call back.
Wednesday, Sept. 10th: Kathleen sounded her own alarm.
“That morning, I called Mom and told her, ‘I’m sick. I have a fever and I need to see a doctor,’” she says. Sensing her urgency, Deb again phoned the medical office and insisted that Kathleen be seen that day. She got an appointment with an affiliated physician for 5:15 that afternoon
At first, the examination seemed routine.
Then the doctor looked at Kathleen’s leg. He asked if she had had a meningitis shot or took birth control pills. The answer to both was no. He next ordered X-rays and blood work. Then Kathleen got the first clue to her condition’s severity.
“The way I was lying, I could look at the lady who did the X-rays,” Kathleen says. “When I saw her face, I knew something was wrong.”
For Deb, the situation was even more frightening because husband Jim was on a business trip to Texas. She was alone to reassure her child.
Still, she balked at giving Kathleen false hope.
“We were waiting for results, and I got a feeling in the pit of stomach that something was terribly wrong,” she recalls. “Kathleen said, ‘Mom, you don’t think it’s anything serious, do you?’ and I had to say, ‘I don’t know. We’ll have to wait and see.’”
They didn’t wait long.
The doctor took them to a small room, where he put an X-ray of Kathleen’s femur on the screen beside a normal one. The difference was staggering.
“Kathleen’s bone looked jagged, chopped up, like the outline of a Christmas tree,” Deb says.
In his office, the doctor laid out the facts: He wasn’t sure what they were dealing with but he was certain it was serious. He couldn’t rule out cancer. And to get a better view of the problem, he wanted to admit Kathleen to the hospital for an MRI and bone scan that night.
“At this point, I was in shock and disbelief,” says Kathleen. “I told Mom, ‘It can’t be cancer; they don’t know for sure.’”
Support and Answers
Even in midst of this turmoil, the Morases were blessed.
There were always friends and family eager to help.
That evening, Kathy and Jeff Barton drove Kathleen and Deb to Roanoke Memorial and stayed with them. Son Brian enlisted a female friend to go with him to Kathleen’s college and collect her necessities, including her “blankie.”
Meanwhile, the hospital staff went into action.
“We got to the room around 8:30 and they drew blood. Then they took Kathleen downstairs for the MRI around 9:30,” Deb says, noting that the late hour was a tip-off to the case’s gravity. “That’s when you know they’re looking for more than an infection.” As it turned out, a second MRI was done with injected dye to ensure a better reading.
In the meantime, Deb called a neighbor, general surgeon Bob Williams, explained the situation and asked him to come to the hospital. When he arrived, he had brought with him another neighbor, cardiologist Jeff Todd. This concerned group of friends stayed as Deb and Kathleen got the verdict: the probability of a tumor and the need for an orthopedist.
Again, the Moras luck held. A third neighbor belonged to an orthopedic group, and Deb enlisted a physician from that practice, Dr. William Mirenda. He came immediately.
“He saw the MRI and asked everyone to leave so he could talk to us,” says Deb. “I wasn’t sure what questions to ask, so I requested that the two doctors stay.” Mirenda, agreed.
Hard, Cold Facts
Mirenda sat at Kathleen’s bedside and talked directly to her. He pulled no punches. He told her she did, indeed, have a tumor, that he didn’t know if it was benign or malignant, and that he recommended she go to Medical College of Virginia in Richmond or Bowman-Gray in Greensboro for a biopsy by an orthopedic oncologist.
Again, the Moras guardian angel was there. As it happened, neighbor/cardiologist Jeff Todd knew just the man. He had done a residency under him — Dr. William Foster at MCV — and urged Deb and Kathleen to seek his care. They agreed.
Later, alone together, Deb and Kathleen began the first of endless nights in lonely hospitals as mother and daughter pooled their strength and built a bond that would see them through the stormy days ahead.
Thursday, Sept. 11: Once again, speed was of the essence. By noon, arrangements had been made for the Foster consultation and biopsy at 1 p.m. Friday.
Earlier, a physical therapist came to Kathleen’s room to show her how to use crutches.
“They didn’t want me to walk on the leg in case it broke and spread the cells,”
Kathleen acknowledges. But even with such dire possibilities, her faith never wavered. Not only did she never shed a tear, she took an amazing stance: “I remember saying, ‘If it’s cancer, we’ll get through it, and we’ll be fine.’”
With things in order, the women returned home, packed and waited for Jim to arrive on the first available flight. By 5, he was home. By 7, they were on the road. Not knowing whether Kathleen would need to stay in Richmond, they set out in a caravan of two cars with Deb and Kathleen in one, Jim and Brian in the second. By 10:30, Kathleen was admitted. Attendants drew blood and gave her a sedative to sleep.
Fortunately, the room contained two beds.
“I was able to stay in the other one,” Deb says. “I was so grateful.”
Friday, Sept. 12: The Morases met with Dr. Foster, who explained he would do an ultrasound needle biopsy, which Kathleen could watch on the screen. At the procedure, 20 medical personnel were in the room.
“It was such a big tumor, they hadn’t seen anything like that,” Kathleen recalls of the growth, approximately the size of a softball. Though she talked randomly during the biopsy, she recognized her need for comfort. “I remember asking an intern if I could hold her hand.” The biggest problem: the procedure had to be done with extreme care so cells wouldn’t escape into her leg.
By 3 p.m., she was back in her room, ravenous and asking for Chick-Fil-A, when Foster brought the news.
“We were all sitting there when he came in and said, ‘It’s cancer. Specifically, osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer.” A pediatric disease that normally attacks people from ages 13 to 22. there is no known cause. Nor could Foster speculate as to how long the tumor had been there.
It was a chilling moment.
“I reached for Kathleen’s hand,” Deb says, “but she knocked mine away.
She didn’t cry. She wanted to take in all the information herself.”
Foster asked if the family knew of a Roanoke oncologist.
Again, a guardian angel came to their rescue.
For years, Deb had walked in the mornings with oncologist Joan Fisher.
With an action plan in place, Foster released Kathleen so she could be hope for the hospital for the weekend. After everyone left the room, she made one call: to her boyfriend at college. He was with the crowd of friends that greeted the family when they arrived back in Roanoke that night.
“We were all trying to be strong,” she says, “but when Mom asked me how I felt, I said, ‘You mean that I’m 19 and have cancer? It sucks.’” The next day, she and Paul went back to her college and packed her belongings. College was no longer an option.
By the time she got home, she was in such pain, Paul had to nearly carry her up the stairs.
Monday, Sept. 15: Deb called Dr. Fisher in the morning. Before she saw them at 1 p.m., she consulted with Foster by phone.
“Together, we went over the ‘road map’ for Kathleen’s treatment,” says Deb. “She gave us a tour of Community Hospital’s pediatric floor.” The following week, she started chemo sessions in the hopes of shrinking the tumor. Kathleen’s biggest concern was whether she’d lose her hair.
Here, the family luck failed.
Everything the doctor said didn’t usually happen, happened to me,” Kathleen recounts. “I did lose my hair and all the medications made me sick. The anti-nausea pills didn’t work and some meds I just couldn’t take.”
Her schedule meant three days in the hospital with two weeks off, then five days in again. Unfortunately, in the two-week off-period, she’s often run a fever or her blood count would drop and she’d have to be readmitted. In actuality, she spent nearly three weeks of every month in the hospital with Deb by her side.
As time passed, Kathleen reacted with the normal emotions.
“The few times I got to go out of house, people would stare because I was bald. I didn’t wear a wig or a scarf,” she says. “I was mad. The rest of my friends were at college having a great time. I was here, puking my guts out. It was not fun.” As the ordeal went on, she grew thinner and thinner, even requiring IVs most of the time she was home. Then, the day before Thanksgiving, she was released from the hospital.
Still, there was no joyful celebration.
“I had Thanksgiving two days later,” she acknowledges, “sitting at the dining room table with my IV.”
The news was dismal: The tumor had not shrunk as the doctors had hoped.
When Kathleen saw Foster the first week of December, his frustration was almost palpable.
“He’d put an MRI up for us to see, then throw it down and say, ‘This doesn’t look good,’” Deb remembers. “He told us there were two options.” The first was amputating Kathleen’s leg at the hip, assuring that he’d gotten all the cancer, but meaning she would have to wear a prosthesis strapped around her waist, a heavy, uncomfortable device that most patients ended up not wearing. Instead, she would probably be forced to use a wheel chair. The second option was barely less frightening: she could have her hip, femur and knee removed and he could try to salvage he leg.
“He told me, ‘Because of the muscle involved, you’ll never walk without the use of a cane or crutches,’” Kathleeen says. “And he told me that while he would replace the hip, femur and knee, if the tumor were around a blood source, he would have to amputate. I asked if I had to make a decision then and he said, ‘no.’”
Standing On Her Faith
Kathleen already knew her answer: option two.
“I told Mom, ‘He may be a good doctor, but he’s not God and I will walk again,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘When I walk down the aisle to be married, the only thing I’ll hold onto is my father’s arm.’”
Tuesday, Dec.16: Everything was set for surgery.
Foster had reassured Kathleen that her biggest fear – spending Christmas in the hospital – was unfounded. In preparation for the festivities, she’d ordered Christmas gifts online, and the night before leaving for Richmond, she and Paul had gone to
Carlos for dinner, being especially careful not to fall or do anything to hurt her leg.
She arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. and was taken to pre-surgery. But there was a problem: no room. With flu season in full swing, the hospital was full. Foster stepped in, and demanded a solution: “She has to have a room; we must do this operation today.”
The surgery lasted seven hours, starting at 9:30a.m. and ending around 3:30 p.m.
The news was a happy surprise.
Foster told the family, “It went better than expected. I took out the hip, femur, knee and 75 percent of her muscle. She has one quad muscle left; the rest had cancer, but it was not in the main artery to the leg.” Just as exciting, the margins of the cancer were clean; no cancer. And to make sure she was headed for a strong recuperation, attendants got her out of bed and had her walking the day after surgery.
Amazingly, Kathleen’s leg looks normal.
The flesh is intact around the titanium rod, hip and knee, and only fading scars act as a reminder of the 125 staples she had when she left the hospital Dec. 23 after days of support from Deb, Jim and Paul, who alternated accommodations at the hotel and hospital.
The Final Round
Thursday, Jan. 8, 2004: Kathleen began chemo again. She was scheduled for treatment from January to June.
Though doctors tried different chemo, she still got sick. Her hair, which had started to grow in over Christmas, fell out again. After her last treatment, she threw up and had diarrhea 37 hours straight.
Mom Deb remembers thinking, “After all this, the drugs are going to kill her.”
In March, Kathleen herself called a halt.
“My body had gotten so weak, I couldn’t take the medicine any more,” she says, “so I made the decision: ‘I’d rather live a few months in happiness and let the cancer kill me than have the chemo kill me.’”
Her doctor acknowledged it was her choice.
In the meantime, she had begun physical therapy in the hospital during chemo. When she went home, a therapist came to the house. Later, she took her sessions at the Roanoke Athletic Club, where she could do more exercises and put 10-pound weights on the leg. The result was magic: Despite the dire predictions that she could never again walk unassisted, she did the impossible… as well as lifting her leg to a 90-degree angle.
“I still remember the first day it happened,” she says now of her knee lift, something Foster has her execute in front of amazed interns during her three-month visits, noting that there is no reason she should be able to do it and wishing all his patients had her drive. And while she lives in pain, including bouts of soreness and acheness when it rains, she’s grateful for many, many things.
“I can walk on my own and I can lift my leg,” she says. “This is hard, but I’ve adjusted to it.”
She hasn’t forgotten the church members and neighbors who provided food night after night. Or the doctors and nurses she believes are “the best.” Or her frequent visits with minister Dave Fuller.
“We prayed a lot,” she says, “and I just had faith that God would see me through this. I had no doubt that my recovery and the fact that I can walk have been a miracle.”
A Sunny Prognosis
For Kathleen, the future looks bright.
According to Foster, if the cancer comes back in her leg, it just means he didn’t get it all. It won’t spread. If it does reoccur, however, it most likely would go to
Kathleen’s lungs, something the Morases don’t want – or need – to hear the chances of.
For now, Kathleen is cancer-free. That’s enough.
She checks in with Dr. Fisher every six months, mainly for CT scans on her lungs and X-rays of her leg, and because of the size of her tumor and the fact that it didn’t shrink, she will continue to see Dr. Foster for 10 years, currently at his Charlottesville office where he makes sure her scars are healing properly.
But today, her life is full of other things.
She is a student at Virginia Western with plans to transfer to Radford University in 2006 to become a pediatric oncology nurse. She shares an apartment with a friend, has a job on the side, and has come so far, she doesn’t even take medications.
“I’ve been cancer free-now for a year and half,” she concludes, “and I’m walking without a cane, crutches or anything.”
And for all those around her, this is more than a happy ending.
It is a very personal, very special miracle.