September 18, 2020

Teen defeats bone cancer during the pandemic

When a pain in Jacob Knudsen’s knee wouldn’t go away, doctors acted quickly to diagnose and treat him for osteosarcoma.

Jacob Knudsen’s care continued safely during COVID-19.

When 12-year-old Jacob Knudsen first felt pain in his right knee last summer, he and his family thought it might be from growing pains or a fracture from a recent roller-skating fall. They couldn’t have imagined that their baseball-loving oldest son would spend his next school year fighting bone cancer and going through chemotherapy amid a pandemic.

Jacob’s mother, Isabel Knudsen, attributes Jacob’s recovery to the fast diagnosis and treatment he received from his Kaiser Permanente doctors and nurses.

“They gave us strength we didn’t know we had,” Knudsen said. “The care Jacob received was wonderful.”

Quick diagnosis, compassionate care

In September 2019, Jacob’s pediatrician, Vanessa Desousa, DO, ordered scans when the swelling and pain in his knee lasted more than 6 weeks after a roller-skating fall. Andrew Fang, MD, a Kaiser Permanente orthopedic surgeon, suspected that Jacob had osteosarcoma and ordered a biopsy, which confirmed the diagnosis.

“I thought maybe it was a fracture in my knee, and it turned out to be a lot worse,” Jacob said. “I knew I had to be really strong.”

boy on hospital bed smiling

Jacob underwent surgery to remove the tumor and replace his right knee and most of his femur with a titanium prosthetic. He spent the next 8 months in and out of Kaiser Permanente Oakland Medical Center, receiving chemotherapy treatments.

Throughout his treatment and recovery, Jacob found solace in striking up conversations about sports and life with his doctors, nurses, and other friends he made while at the hospital.

“I could be myself with them,” he said. “It was like having a second family. It’s just incredible how much support and kindness these doctors and nurses give you.”

Pediatric hematologist-oncologist Lisa Goodman, MD, said she was impressed by Jacob’s positive nature and commitment to recovery.

“He did his physical therapy with incredible devotion and recovered faster than any kid I’ve ever seen,” she said.

Isolation and COVID-19

Battling cancer weakens the immune system, so Jacob and his family had to take extra precautions to make sure he didn’t catch a cold or the flu — even before the novel coronavirus arrived. The family cleaned and disinfected everything around Jacob, and his contact with the outside world was very limited aside from the occasional trip to the movie theater and visits from his friends and family.

When the pandemic started to unfold during Jacob’s last few rounds of chemotherapy, Kaiser Permanente enacted new protocols to keep patients safe.

“We were terrified,” Isabel Knudsen said. “Having your child sick with cancer is terrifying. Having to go through that during a pandemic is extra awful.”

The new guidelines meant that only one family member at a time could visit Jacob. To limit Jacob’s potential exposure to the virus, only one nurse would check on him, and his doctors started to do their check-ins over video. The extra isolation was tough, but Jacob said he feels that the pandemic also brought him closer to other people.

“For me, it was kind of like everybody was now getting a sense of the isolation and fear that cancer patients go through,” Jacob said.

On the day Jacob concluded his treatment, he rang a bell in a ceremony at Oakland Medical Center marking his discharge. Now 13 and cancer-free, Jacob is back to hitting baseballs with his dad.

“I’m just so thankful to have made it,” he said.