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A Success Story - Derek Neben

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Derek Neben 

Derek graduated from Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, Nebraska,  majoring in Biology, heading toward Pre-Med.  Even though Derek had decided on a career in medicine right before his diagnosis with cancer, his cancer experience and doctors helped him decide the best career path for him was to become a surgeon.  He is an Osteosarcoma survivor.  In his own words:

“I, Derek Neben, am a cancer survivor.  It all started when I was in seventh grade.  Many people have said that junior high is one of the toughest times in one's life, trying to fit in with one's peers and adjusting to the new type of school.  My second semester of seventh grade brought an additional terrible burden on me in the form of osteogenic sarcoma (osteosarcoma) of my right knee.

I had participated in Cross Country in the fall, followed by basketball and club soccer. In December and January, I was finding it painful to run. My parents at first thought it was just stress from all my sports. Then after wrestling with my cousin one weekend, we noticed a swelling. My dad has a lot of experience with sports injuries but everything he tried did not help the swelling. After I took myself out of a soccer game because of the pain, we headed to the Emergent Care Facility. Eventually, I was referred to Dr. James Neff at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. 

In the fall of seventh grade, I had decided I wanted a career in medicine while taking a 'Careers' mini class. I was active in medicine-related programs my school offered through the High Ability Learners Program, including visiting The University of Nebraska Medical Center, not even thinking I would be there as a patient in less than five months. I had not yet decided what field of medicine I wanted to be in.

Being diagnosed with bone cancer that February brought me closer to my future dream career area, and showed me what I had to do and overcome to get there. I met Dr. James R. Neff, PhD, a world-renowned physician and a surgeon at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. After waiting in an examination room for three hours, Dr. Neff finally came in and said, 'I think you have bone cancer, but we will do a biopsy to see. We need to do it tomorrow. The rest of today you will be having many tests all over the hospital.'  That was Thursday. We went from one area of the medical complex to another all afternoon. One stop was to be fitted for the metal arm crutches. My mom later said she felt so sad to see me get those crutches, but I remember being happy because now I could walk without the pain! 

Friday was the biopsy. Saturday Dr. Neff came to my room and told us it was cancer. He did not think he would be able to save my leg, and began to talk about amputation and using my foot for my knee. For a boy who had played every sport, this was devastating. Monday I had another surgery to insert the port, and by Tuesday I had my first chemo treatment.

Most of my hospital days with chemotherapy I do not remember because I was so sick. One type of chemo made me extremely ill and the doctors had to call the National Cancer Institute for medicine to help reverse the chemo affect. My parents said that when the head doctor of the Pediatric Oncology Department of the Medical Center sat with them that evening, they knew things were serious. I was out of school for the fourth quarter of my seventh grade year, and only at school for half of my eighth grade year. In all, I was in the hospital over one hundred forty days.  Because of three months of extensive chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor and Dr. Neff’s skill and ingenuity to try something new, the seven-hour surgery to remove my tumor that July was successful. He was able to save my leg by placing filler cement and an experimental plate in where he removed bone.  Through my follow-up therapy and appointments, Dr. Neff became a friend, and he called me his buddy. He encouraged me to pursue my talent and inspired me to work at my goals. He said that I should work at what I can do and manage my life to support those things. I was sad when he died of cancer in the summer of 2005.

The following December during my senior year of high school, I went to Kansas City for additional surgery on my leg. This surgery involved both legs, as my new surgeon, Dr. Rosenthal, removed bone from my good leg and put it in my right leg to replace the filler. This was to eventually give me two good legs and more mobility, like running! I have progressed from wheelchair to crutches and now to running. It was successful! In fact, this winter I have been able to participate in my college intramural soccer games. It feels great! 

During my senior year, I was selected to participate in Project Happy, a hospital volunteer program in which high school students spend time with the young patients at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. I enjoyed my times with these patients, since I could identify with them. I have also had the opportunity to be a camp counselor at Camp CoHoLo for children who have experienced cancer and other life-threatening diseases. I loved my time there!

Because of my cancer and Dr. Neff and Dr. Rosenthal and their knowledge and skill in helping me, I decided on a career as a surgeon, so I can help others as I have been helped.  I plan to attend Nebraska Wesleyan University for four years, with an interest in Pre-Med and majoring in Biology. My goal is to be a surgeon, and in order to succeed in that career I need to be educated in a variety of areas. The liberal arts education at this institution will be an asset for my medical school application. It will also be valuable in communicating with patients, colleagues, and students working under me when I am a surgeon.  Following graduation from Wesleyan, I plan to attend the University of Nebraska Medical Center for medical school. For my specialty, I plan to attend the University of Experimental Surgery in Zurich, Switzerland.

Even though I had decided on a career in medicine before my cancer diagnosis, cancer has influenced my decisions for the future and will help me achieve my goals. Through my personal experience with cancer, I will be able to empathize with my patients of the future. I will know what they and their family are experiencing. This will help me be a better physician and meet their medical and personal needs.

Thank you Cancer Survivors' Fund, for everything - the encouraging e-mails, and the opportunity to continue pursuing my goals - thank you!

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