In many ways, Jacob Ballard is a typical teenager. He likes soccer, is fascinated by robots and enjoys spending time with his friends.
But in some ways, the 17-year-old cancer survivor is completely different.
Since he was diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma in November 2014, Jacob has spent more than 120 days in the hospital and received more than 160 doses of chemotherapy. In March 2015, he also had an internal type I/II hemipelvectomy. The procedure removed a tumor — along with the entire left side of his pelvic bone.
A tough decision
“It was a hard, hard decision to make,” says his mother, Letha Ballard, of the surgery. “I cried and cried for weeks. In a way, you’re knowingly disabling your child. But Ewing’s sarcoma is an extremely aggressive form of cancer, so you have to assume it has micro-metastasized. Before, doctors would amputate limbs, and the Ewing’s sarcoma would still come back. So intense chemotherapy and surgery to remove the tumor are considered absolutely essential.”
The Ballard family made that tough decision with the help of Valerae Lewis, M.D., whom Letha calls “a miracle worker.”
“We had a surgery consultation at a different hospital before coming to MD Anderson for a second opinion,” Letha explains. “At one point, we had eight doctors in a room saying, ‘Don’t do this surgery. He will never walk again. His quality of life will suffer.’”
But Dr. Lewis, who started MD Anderson's Multidisciplinary Pelvic Sarcoma Program, showed the Ballards a video of her previous patients walking and told Jacob, “You will walk again. You will have a full, happy life.”
“That gave us confidence,” Letha says. “I wish everyone could come to Dr. Lewis.”
Beginning again after Ewing’s sarcoma
Jacob has since re-learned to walk and ride a bicycle, despite having no real hip joint on the left side of his body. (Instead, his femur is cradled by scar tissue and muscle.) He even completed a hard 15-mile hike over rough terrain just one year post-surgery.
“Yes, it was uncomfortable,” Jacob says. “But I was doing it with a bunch of friends, so I knew it would be fun. And I’m always in some degree of pain. I just ignore it.”
“Walking is tiring for him, and it does get painful after a while,” Letha adds. “But this is something our church does every four years, and it was important to Jacob. It’s a re-enactment of the pioneers moving west, and he followed a training plan developed by his physical therapist six days a week for five weeks leading up to it. It was a pretty remarkable thing for him to do, a real confidence-booster. A few adults were not able to finish, so it was a real inspiration, too.”
Moving forward after Ewing’s sarcoma
Today, Jacob continues to come in for regular follow-up scans and weekly physical therapy sessions. His goal is to build his stamina with an eye toward the future. And he has a very good reason for it.
“I have a Make-a-Wish trip coming up later this year,” Jacob says. “It’s to Disneyworld, and there’s going to be a lot of walking involved. Other patients who have done it told me they just used a wheelchair. But I said, ‘Nope. I don’t want to be riding in a wheelchair.’ I can’t run and jump anymore. But being able to walk is better than nothing. Now I’m trying to keep improving, so I can do all the walking I need to.”