Printed on: April 22, 2013
Ore. man bonds with boy fighting same cancer
EUGENE, Ore. (AP) - Jordan McDonald wears his on his right leg, Grant Jensen wears his on his left.
And McDonald, at 24, is twice as old, so his prosthetic leg is longer than the new one just fitted for Jensen, who is still a rambunctious 12-year-old. But what the two share runs much deeper than which leg they partially lost to an uncommon form of cancer.
McDonald has become part big brother, part adviser, part guide to Jensen as he fights a sometimes-aggressive form of bone cancer called osteosarcoma, which is most often seen in children and young adults. McDonald recently treated the Jensen family - Grant, his 5-year-old sister Claire and his parents, Erin and Tyler - to a weekend of fun before Grant was scheduled to start another round of chemotherapy.
Grant's prognosis is uncertain. The cancer has spread to his lungs and his parents are cautiously hopeful that chemotherapy will stop it, but as with most spreading cancers there are no guarantees.
"One thing I tell them is just live your life," McDonald said on a recent Saturday as Grant tried out a sporty luxury car during a tour of MercedesBenz of Eugene, where McDonald is a mechanic. "The treatment will take care of itself. There's not much you can do about that."
McDonald, who lives in Halsey near his parents, was 18 when he found out a week after his high school graduation that the pain he'd been feeling in his right knee was osteosarcoma. The diagnosis was like a rock falling in a still pond, roiling what had been the typical, quiet life of a rural family.
Within days, he was starting three months of chemotherapy at Doernbecher Children's Hospital in Portland, followed by surgery to remove the knee and portions of his leg. Then six more months of chemo. Then the grueling recovery and rehab while he learned to get around on a prosthetic leg.
Both McDonald and Jensen chose a surgical procedure known as rotationplasty. After the knee and any bone affected by cancer are removed, the lower leg is reattached to the upper leg with the foot facing backward, allowing the ankle to serve as a knee with a prosthetic attached to the foot.
McDonald is only too aware of just how odd that sounds. He flat-out refused when it was first suggested, but after talking to a couple of people who'd had the procedure and thinking about it some more he decided it was actually the best way to get the most function he could.
Then 18 and a longtime motor nut, McDonald had his heart set on going to a technical school in California to train as an advanced mechanic and work on sophisticated car engines. The cancer put those plans in jeopardy, and part of what convinced him to go with rotationplasty was being able to get his career plan back on track.
"He literally gave his right leg to go to automotive school," said Annie McDonald, Jordan's mother. "Not many people can say that."
Grant said he had a similar reaction when he first heard about the surgery. After all, having your foot stuck on backward is about as non-intuitive as it gets.
"It's pretty weird, I've got to admit it," he said. Still, he thinks it's kind of cool that he now has three feet.
Grant just got his prosthetic a couple of weeks ago and still uses crutches to get around, but other than that, one would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between him and any other preteen boy. Although the family lives in Vancouver, Wash., Grant is a hardcore Ducks fan, and he was looking forward to a tour of the University of Oregon athletic department after trying out the Mercedes-Benz cars.
On April 12, they took in a Blazers game in Portland. On Sunday, both families were going to the coast, where dune buggies and sand rails would be the order of the day.
Grant is impressed that McDonald not only built and rides his own sand rail - a rig specially built for dune riding - but also has raced motorcycles and four-wheelers, tried rock climbing and learned to snowboard.
McDonald has mentored other youngsters going through the same cancer treatment.
He's been doing it almost since he completed his own treatment, making regular trips up to Doernbecher with the full support of his boss at Mercedes-Benz.
Part of the reason is because he remembers how much it meant to him to talk with people who had been through the treatment when he was doing it. But he also sees it as a way to pay back the doctors and nurses who did so much for him.
"It helps them out," McDonald said. "They're the ones who did so much for me, it's the least I could do. I can't really thank them enough for what they've done."
Like most youngsters his age, Grant isn't much of a chatterbox around adults. He said it was "awesome" to have McDonald around to talk about the surgery, help deal with chemotherapy and get advice on using his prosthetic leg.
Erin Jensen, Grant's mother, said it's hard to describe how helpful and comforting it's been to have McDonald in their lives during such difficult times.
"It's amazing having him around," she said. "They just have always got along really well. He really helped us through it.