After battling a giant cell tumor in his leg and undergoing three complex surgeries in just more than a year, a McDonald man said he believes he is ready for his comeback.
Jeff Sampson, 42, survived a giant cell tumor in his right tibia. He was unable to work for several months. The tumor is rare but aggressive and non-cancerous, destroying the bone from the inside out, he said.
Tribune Chronicle / Bob Coupland
McDonald resident Jeff Sampson relaxes at his home after undergoing three extensive surgeries on his right leg to remove a giant cell tumor. He is beginning to return to his normal routine of work and other activities after having to be in his home for recovery period.
"It typically affects one in a million people per year," said Sampson, wearing a T-shirt with the words "One in a Million."
"I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones and was able to be helped," he said.
"The first two years is the most important. Once you get past the first two years, the chances of it coming back diminishes," he said.
Today he is back playing soccer and jogging a little and plans to run in the annual Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving Day at Kent State University at Trumbull.
"I can't run like I used to. I have slight limp, but my goal is to run or walk in a two- to five-mile race," he said.
A giant cell tumor typically affects people between ages 20 and 40, and women more often than men.
There is no known cause, Sampson said. Such tumors can develop anywhere in the body where there is a joint, he said.
Sampson said in late fall 2010 at age 39, he was running and playing indoor soccer at the Niles Wellness Center when he noticed that his right leg was buckling.
"At first I let it go, thinking it was all in my head," Sampson said.
In December 2010, the leg was starting to feel painful.
"I was playing soccer and would be running for five to 10 minutes, and my leg felt like it wanted to give out," he said. "I looked at it (his knee) and it started to swell up like a cantaloupe," he said.
At work in Aurora where he is an electronics operator, it was harder to stand.
"I noticed in the morning, I would be fine and then after I had started walking or standing, the pain would get to the point where it was unbearable and there was swelling," he said.
Sampson said he went to a local urgent care center for some X-rays. It was diagnosed as a sprained knee, so he put ice on it and rested.
"I thought everything would be fine," he said.
By April 2011, the pain increased.
"I noticed walking became more difficult. I would look at my leg, and it would just swell up. I knew this was more than a sprained knee," Sampson said.
X-rays at an osteopathic clinic in Youngstown found he either had a giant cell tumor or osteosarcoma, which is bone cancer.
"I was fortunate that it was not cancer or that the tumor had not metastasized into the lungs. If that had happened, it would have been fatal," he said.
He said he was told that 80 percent of the giant cell tumor inside the tibia at the knee joint was treatable.
"Because so many months went by, the tumor went from being four centimeters to eight centimeters and encapsulated the whole inside of the top part of the knee joint. Instead of having bone marrow, I had a tumor in the space near the joint," Sampson said.
"The specialist (at the Crystal Clinic) in Akron told me if I took the wrong step, because of the size of the tumor, my leg could literally shatter," Sampson said.
Surgery in May 2011 involved going directly into the leg bone and cavity, where the tumor was removed and filled in with a bone cement. A small plate and two screws were inserted into the tibia for stability.
"After I came home and began healing and I thought everything was looking good, I was at a soccer game in June and my wife noticed a red blister about the size of a dime which was seeping fluid on my knee, so I went to the urgent care unit," he said.
Sampson said that was cleaned up, but after the next months, he began getting ulcerations and non-healing wounds.
"This went on for eight months," he said.
Tammy Sampson said the ulcers were tunneling into the leg, and she suspected some kind of reaction from the surgery.
In May 2012, Sampson went to see a plastic surgeon because the skin in the shin area had become purplish-blue and had dead tissue.
"I went back to the Crystal Clinic and they told me to help heal this, they would use skin grafts in a muscle flap procedure of wrapping calf muscle around and covering the dead tissue area of the leg. Donor skin from the other leg was used to cover over it," he said.
After that, Sampson received physical therapy, at times painful, to help straighten his leg. The therapist would put Sampson's leg on his shoulder while he was lying on a table to try and straighten the leg.
"After the first surgery, I had a little bit of a curve in my leg at the knee, which they couldn't get to straighten out. The pain at times was unbelievable," Sampson said.
Tammy said Jeff had to learn how to walk again.
"I could not stand on this leg and had to use crutches. I would take baby steps and then more and more steps," Sampson said.
Sampson said his faith in God helped him through the situation, as did Tammy and their daughter, Abby, 11, and their friends at the Woodland United Methodist Church.
In July 2012, Sampson returned to work after having to be off for two months for the first surgery and two months for the second surgery. Three weeks into work he noticed a bulge was developing on his knee directly above the area where the skin grafts were done.
"It was the almost the size of a baseball. It was trickling some fluid and I thought it didn't look good," he said.
The plastic surgeon examined it and thought it might be a reaction to the bone cement or metal. Sampson went to see the surgeon who did his first surgery in 2011.
"I went and saw him, and they did emergency surgery the next day," Sampson said.
This was the third surgery he had.
The surgery, which he underwent in August 2012, drained the infectious material. The doctor also chiseled out bone cement from the first surgery in the leg and put in anti-bacterial cement. It was the most painful of the three surgeries, he said.
"When they went into the bone, it was like a splitting toothache. I had to sleep on a chair for weeks day and night because I couldn't sleep on a bed," he said.
Following that surgery, the family received help from an in-home care nurse who came to the house to check on Sampson.
For months, Sampson did not move much. He said the biggest hurdle was getting through the third round of physical therapy, which included walking and bicycling.
"All these things in combination helped to straighten my leg," he said.
Sampson said he gets checked every six months.
The most challenging part was staying in the house for the past two years, especially in the summer months.
Tammy said, "He wasn't able to do things he wanted to do. There was activities he couldn't attend because he had to stay at home."
Jeff said he felt bad not being able to get to his daughter's school or Girl Scout events.
"She was my nurse and a was a big helper," he said of his daughter.
Sampson said he is also appreciating life more and considers himself to be very blessed.
He said he has read stories online of people who have had giant cell tumors who face paralysis and other serious health issues.
"I feel blessed that I am still here on the earth. I am getting another chance and want to help make a difference. I will never forget when I got that initial diagnosis and that it could be cancer. I was thinking of my wife and daughter," Sampson said.
He said he hopes that others will hear his story and see that someone can overcome obstacles and return to some normalcy.
"They hear what I did and can say, 'What is stopping me?'
"I want people to know that there is hope and that situations do not have to be out of control. There is a possibility of leading a normal life again," Sampson said.