Osteosarcoma Survivor Turns Personal Experience Into College Major

When Dugan Smith walks across the stage at Fostoria High School to receive his diploma Sunday, June 5, 2016, it will be a monumental occasion of joy for his family that goes much deeper than it does for the average parent.

In 2008, at age 10, Dugan was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that represents less than 3 percent of all childhood cancers. Treatment would require him to have his right leg amputated above the knee in order to achieve cancer control. His parents were faced with tough decision about how to help their son – who was showing both passion and talent as baseball pitcher and first baseman – maintain as much mobility as possible.

With guidance from OSUCCC – James orthopaedic oncology surgeon Joel Mayerson, MD, his parents chose to pursue a complex, uncommon surgical procedure that allowed Dugan to keep the remainder of his leg but reattached, backward.

The so-called “backward leg” (rotationplasty) procedure would allow doctors to remove the softball-sized tumor but leave the nerve that controls his foot intact. The procedure reconfigured his leg so that his calf became his thigh; his ankle became his knee; his foot became his shinbone. A prosthetic foot and ankle replaced his former lower leg.  

“With therapy and strengthening, rotationplasty gave Dugan the best chances of near complete return to normal mobility,” explains Mayerson. “Traditional surgeries would have required us to rebuild his leg from the inside using a metal rod, greatly limiting his ability to run, jump and play sports. That’s not what Dugan wanted and his parents had the foresight to look into his future and chose the path that was right for him, even though the procedure was unusual and somewhat radical.”

To this day his parents smile a little ruefully when they remember how they agonized over endless questions regarding the procedure and Dugan’s future but the one question their son was concerned about …  “Will I still be able to play baseball?”

The answer, though not as clear as the time, was a resounding YES. Dugan, now 18, continued to play baseball and basketball throughout junior high and high school. In fact, he’s so talented he could probably play in college.

But the next chapter of Dugan’s life is inspired by his personal experiences as an amputee and cancer survivor. This fall, Dugan will attend Bowling Green State University where he will study human movement and kinesiology. His ultimate goal? To design modern prostheses for people affected by amputations and limb abnormalities.

“I think the only thing that's holding me back is my prosthetic. If it was more modernized I think that would improve my mobility a lot,” he says. “I want to design better prostheses so people can continue to live their lives without irritating disruptions. I’ve broken mine several times during practice. That’s so frustrating.”

Dugan says he has often questioned why he was diagnosed with osteosarcoma and given the challenges he has faced. He says he now believes God has a path for him – and that path is to help other people.

“This has changed my life and I look at things differently. I feel like I need to help people and that is why I am here today,” says Dugan, reflecting on how his life has changed since his diagnosis. “I didn't understand cancer when the doctors were explaining it to me. I just thought that you died. But today I see beyond that. I tell other kids diagnosed with cancer that it's going to be a long road … but you have to fight, be determined and just have to keep going. You can't let it bring you down.”