SHOREWOOD, Ill. — At 15 years old, Alex Czuczuk’s life took a very different path than what he was expecting.
At a time when most teenagers are practicing to get their driver’s licenses, hanging out with friends and worried about homework, Alex was diagnosed with bone cancer in his left leg.
Just one year ago, Alex was at Minooka Community High School football camp and planning to go out for the team in the fall as a kicker. He began experiencing pain in his leg that shot up into his thigh.
“It was unbearable at times,” Alex said. “Nothing would help. I could definitely tell something was wrong.”
The first diagnosis was a muscle strain, so he spent over two months in physical therapy. It was during an appointment at ATI in Shorewood that his therapist recommended he get an MRI. His physician agreed.
Alex and his mother Jenan Czuczuk hadn’t even exited the car at home following the MRI when the physician called with the diagnosis of Osteosarcoma.
Alex still remembers that day.
“I sat on the steps thinking the worst things possible,” he said. “I guess you would say I was in shock. I didn’t process it all the way.”
Osteosarcoma is the most common bone cancer in children, usually diagnosed around age 15, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. But it is frequently misdiagnosed, which delays treatment and can result in it spreading to the lungs, said Jenan.
Since Alex’s diagnosis, and subsequent trips to Lurie Children’s Hospital in Chicago, Jenan has met several young people with the disease in varying stages.
“I had never heard of it before, and now every time I bump into someone, I hear about it,” she said. “Let’s be more aware and be more aggressive. It’s not easy to diagnose. Take it that one step further and get an MRI.”
Alex’s treatment began with three months of chemotherapy to shrink the tumor on his leg. The chemo gave him terrible nausea and a feeling like he had a concussion, making it difficult to focus on objects. Other side effects resulted in long delays of his impending surgery.
In January, his cancerous femur was removed and replaced with a nine-inch titanium rod. He also received a new knee and a one-inch rod below his knee.
The next day, Alex was up and moving around with a walker, he said.
He’s been back at ATI since January receiving physical therapy most days. The therapy itself is painful; he grimaces each time the therapist works to bend and stretch his knee beyond the point it wants to move.
“I have to get him loosened up and (extend) his range of motion before we move on to the gym,” said Jason Adolph, director of ATI in Shorewood and one of Alex’s physical therapists.
As he walks gingerly over to the gym area to do leg presses on a weight machine, Alex gets a pat on the back from a fellow patient and smiles from staff members. They know him well.
Although his progress has been slow because of the final rounds of chemo after surgery, it should be easier now that it’s over, said Adolph.
“He’s motivated, so we keep plugging away,” said Adolph.
Despite the pain, therapy is something Alex looks forward to. He has met many friends there, and the staff do their best to make therapy fun, he said.
Through his entire ordeal, the support and strength of his family has meant everything to Alex.
“I got through it one day at a time. I had things to look forward to, like getting my license and making my 16th birthday,” he said. “My family is tough. I knew we’d make it through no matter what.”
While cancer has altered his plans of playing football and hockey, two of the things he loves the most, he is finding ways to work them into his life.
He is thinking of becoming an athletic trainer for high school sports and is looking into playing sled hockey.
His experience at ATI has got him considering physical therapy as a career.
“He’s the type of kid who is already looking down different avenues,” said Jenan.
The road has been long. There were times that the waiting between days of chemo and blood test results to see if he could go home seemed almost too much to bear. There are times when the pain of therapy brings tears to his eyes.
There are still a few more challenges, which Alex will face with the same courage.
“By far this is the most difficult journey,” he said. “I think it’s the most difficult journey for anyone who has this.”