01/18/14 — He's still fighting

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He's still fighting

By Becky Barclay
Published in News on January 18, 2014 10:38 PM

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Matt Poland, 15, talks about his decision to undergo a rotationplasty, a surgery to replace his knee joint with his ankle joint. He traveled to Savannah, Ga., Wednesday to be fitted for a prosthesis.

Looking down still shocks Matt Poland.

It has been three months, but the reality of his partially amputated left leg -- the fact that his foot is where his knee used to be -- is something the 15-year-old is still getting used to.

But the sight doesn't dampen the young man's spirits.

Not when the surgery that created it saved his life.


It started with a fluke injury -- an ACL tear during a basketball game.

Matt had no idea that it would lead him on a journey no teenager ever expects to travel.

"I tore my ACL in a pickup game with my basketball team March 26 of last year," he said. "I went to Goldsboro Pediatrics the next day, but they couldn't do anything until the following week, so we went to Greenville and had an MRI, which confirmed the torn ACL."

Matt had successful ACL reconstructive surgery at Duke June 25.

But the night before his post op appointment a month later, he noticed a bump on his leg that was discolored. And his mother, Anita, had noticed that he'd been losing weight.

At the appointment, Mrs. Poland mentioned these things to the surgeon, who said it could happen in this type of surgery.

But the more he thought about the bump and weight loss, the more concerned the surgeon became. Two days later, he had an MRI done on Matt's leg.

This time, he saw something that he and two other surgeons had missed before.

"The surgeon said it was serious, but never said what it was," Mrs. Poland said.


The phone rings.

Mrs. Poland answers and the voice on the other end is identified as an orthopedic oncology surgeon from Duke.

She knew what that meant.

It was cancer.

So she took Matt in for a bone scan July 26.

Five days later, he had a biopsy.

That was the day he heard the word cancer for the first time.

The surgeon explained that Matt probably had had this slow-growing cancer for a year.

"I kind of went blank when he told me," Matt said. "I just knew that it was really bad when he said they were going to have to take part of my leg. I didn't know what he meant by that. I just knew I was going to go through a lot of hard times."

Matt also wondered how he'd ever play basketball again.

The surgeon recommended a little-used surgery called rotationplasty, amputating the part of the leg that was infected with cancer, then attaching the foot backwards to the knee.

Because it was such a serious diagnosis, Mrs. Poland and her husband, Chris, got a second and even third opinion.

But the recommendations were all the same.

Rotationplasty was the best option.

Matt could have opted for a complete amputation of his left leg just above the knee, but the rotationplasty would give him more mobility and more of a normal life like the one he had been used to.

Before surgery on Oct. 21, though, Matt had to go through several rounds of chemotherapy, which made him very sick. He still has more chemotherapy into April.

After surgery, Matt began the recovery process.

"I didn't want to look at it at first," he said. "I wasn't ready. Then when I saw it, I also saw the scars. I was more freaked out about the scars than the fact that my foot was on backward."

But through it all, Matt has kept a positive attitude.

"I never thought, 'I've got cancer, my life's over,'" he said. "A lot of people survive cancer. And I knew that a lot of people were praying for me, too. I think my faith had a lot to do with my positive attitude through this."

Mrs. Poland said Matt never complained or grumbled.

"He's always looking forward to getting back to basketball and the things he loves," she said. "There's been no depression. I've been amazed. For me as his mom, that's helped me."

She saw Matt's positive attitude even before he had the surgery.

"He told me, 'I know that I will have a greater witness for Christ on the other side of this,'" Mrs. Poland said. "I told him that before all this happened, on July 30, he was just a normal average 14-year-old, but now he is going to have a story for God's glory, and people are going to listen because of what he's going through."

It's changed life at the Poland household, especially for Matt.

"I don't sweat the small stuff anymore," he said.

The experience has steered Matt toward a career as a physical therapist.

"I want to be a physical therapist because of what I've gone through," Matt said. "I've been there and done that and I can relate to people going through physical therapy. I want to help people."

And Matt hopes his experience with cancer will motivate others going through something similar.

"I would tell people that there's nowhere to go but up," he said.