Pain in Right Leg Turns Out to Be a Fairly Rare Type of Tumor

As a teenager, Robert Dobbie loved to surf. The Hermosa Beach, CA, native learned to longboard and boogie board, and along with his friends, he’d enter local surfing competitions to see how he stacked up against other wave-catchers.

“It was just going out there and having fun,” says the now father of three. “We didn’t go far with the competitions, but we had a great time.”

But without expert intervention from Keck Medicine of USC doctors, Robert’s life could have played out very differently.

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At the age of 12, he began to feel pain in his right leg while playing sports. His parents took him to a specialist, who referred the sixth-grader to Lawrence Menendez, MD, at Keck Medicine of USC. After a biopsy of Robert’s tibia, Menendez gave the family a diagnosis — Robert had an osteogenic sarcoma, a primary malignant tumor that begins growing in the ends of the bones where new bone tissue develops.

“It’s fairly rare,” says Menendez, who now serves as the chief of the USC Musculoskeletal Oncology Center. “There are maybe 4,000 cases in the U.S. each year.”

But thankfully Robert had come to the right place.

No loss of limb

Menendez was at the forefront of a cutting-edge operation for patients who had osteogenic sarcomas — limb-sparing surgery. At the time, many patients diagnosed with this type of cancer were treated with amputation of the limb. Robert was instead given chemotherapy to shrink the tumor, then his shin was replaced with a cadaver bone.

As technology progressed, so too did Robert’s access to state-of-the-art treatment. Remaining at the forefront of science and research, Menendez has been able to provide Robert with the most up-to-date replacements as they become necessary. Following the cadaver bone, Robert was given a knee replacement. Now, he has an implant made of plastic and metal that functions as both a tibia and a knee.

“It flexes and extends, rotates, and gives the patient the ability to go up and down stairs, sit and stand in a chair, and drive,” says Menendez.

The implant has allowed Robert to live the lifestyle he loves — our highest priority as part of The Keck Effect — including surfing, mountain biking, and taking his family on camping trips throughout the year. He’s also able to chase after his kids — an 8-year-old boy and 5-year-old twin girls.

Robert’s case is unusual, says Menendez.

“In a sense, his treatment has mirrored many of the advances in orthopaedic oncology,” he says. “He’s a very active person, and he epitomizes where the field has gone over the past 30–40 years.”

Keck Medicine of USC is one of the few centers in the U.S. that treats osteogenic sarcomas with limb-sparing surgery, and Robert says that part of what made his experience so outstanding is Menendez and his passion for medicine.

“He loves doing what he does,” Robert says. “When he goes in to talk with you before the surgery, you can tell he’s really just decided, ‘I’m going to fix this.’”

According to Robert, being diagnosed so young changed his outlook on life. He strives to take care of his health, paying attention to nutrition and exercise. He remains focused on the future. “I want to get more done,” he says. “I’m always thinking, what am I going to do today?”

His decision to live life to the fullest resulted in a career as an artist. Robert is a successful painter focusing on pop surrealism, and puts up gallery shows every two years.

But mostly, Robert is thankful for the most basic gifts. “I got to keep my leg,” he says, “and I’m alive and cancer-free.”

From Menendez’ point of view, Robert is doing remarkably well. “He’s had a very, very good result,” he says. “He’s been cured of the disease, his functional abilities are outstanding, he has a family. He’s in the driver’s seat.”

By Jessica Ogilvie

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