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Ryan Strong: A Pediatric Cancer Patient's Remarkable Recovery Journey

A young boy wearing a T-shirt and a beanie poses for a portrait.
Ryan Mackey
Ryan Mackey strikes a courageous pose inside Walter Reed's Military Advanced Training Center.
Photo By: Ricardo Reyes-Guevara, DOD
VIRIN: 230719-D-EC642-1001Y

When 12-year-old Ryan Mackey felt a sharp cramp in his left leg in early March, he had no idea he was about to embark upon an unpredictable journey, becoming one of approximately 200 children and teens in the United States each year diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma — a type of tumor that forms in bone or soft tissue. 

Ryan's mother, Uniformed Public Health Service Capt. Megan Mackey, who coincidentally works as a nurse practitioner specializing in radiation oncology at the National Institutes of Health, recognized her son's symptoms as problematic and scheduled a medical visit at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Following a series of x-rays and an MRI , the Mackeys met with U.S. Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Benjamin K. Potter, who completed his residency training in orthopedic surgery in 2007 at Walter Reed.

Potter ordered a biopsy to determine if the tumor discovered during Ryan's MRI was cancerous. When the results came back, the family's fears were realized. 
"My husband and I were devastated and scared," recalled Mackey remembering the emotional trauma. "I've been working in oncology for over twenty years, and I thought I had an idea of what patients and families went through — but I really didn't know," acknowledged Mackey — experiencing the same anxiety and pangs of uncertainty that touch many families within the cancer community. 
Despite the temporary setback, the family moved forward and starting in late March, Ryan endured the first of six rounds of scheduled chemotherapy treatment designed to shrink the cancerous tumor prior to surgery. While undergoing chemotherapy, Ryan made friends with the medical staff and other cancer patients, at least one of whom was undergoing the same course of therapy for ES. These new friendships kept Ryan pleasantly distracted and focused on healing, optimistic that he would see his way to his next medical milestone. 
In June, Potter surgically removed part of Ryan's left femur — replacing it with some healthy bone from his fibula in a procedure called an open reduction and internal fixation surgery. 
That surgery paved the way for Ryan, making it possible for the Next Level Lacrosse mid-fielder and virtual game enthusiast to resume some degree of normality: spinning wheels in his state-of-the art wheelchair, or playing spirited games of "Nerf Gun Wars" without taking aim at any unsuspecting bystanders. 


What Ryan misses most during his recovery journey is foregoing his annual excursion to YMCA Camp Tockwogh, a picturesque retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore where teens from the tri-state area camp out, go tubing, hike, play basketball and seemingly enjoy life without barriers or burdens. 
"It's great: there are no cell phones or televisions. We just get a chance to unplug and unwind," exclaimed Ryan whose journey — though unsettling and unscripted — comes with the miracle of making lasting connections and self-discovery. "I realize that I would now like to study medicine and become a doctor because I want to help people the same way Walter Reed's doctors have helped me." 
His chemotherapy treatment is overseen by a "Dream Team" of U.S. Air Force pediatric oncologists, including Lt. Col. (Dr.) Richard Zanetti, Col. (Dr.) Susan Whiteway, and Maj. Karin J. Brockman, all of whom excel in connecting with patients and parents.

These days Ryan continues outpatient screenings in the Pediatric/Hematology Department at Walter Reed, where staff routinely draw blood to ensure that his healthy blood cells are replenished. According to the American Cancer Society, if a tumor is localized, the 5-year relative survival rate is 82-percent for ES patients. Ryan's family hopes that his stellar medical care at Walter Reed bodes well for his future.

"We want to set up a foundation: raise money and donate virtual reality games and lift up other families going through similar circumstances," says Ryan. 
Ryan is a tour de force: his courage, resilience, and energy light the way for others.

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