- Grace Franzese was a star student and soccer player.
- In 2010, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer.
- Memorial Sloan Kettering oncologic surgeon Patrick Boland was able to save Grace’s leg from amputation.
- Grace underwent a major knee operation, multiple chest surgeries, and multiple rounds of chemotherapy before she was declared cancer free.
- She returned back to school and even earned a full scholarship to college.
Grace Franzese’s tireless spirit made her an asset in her Long Island classroom and on the school soccer field. But her tenacity was perhaps most essential when she faced a challenge unfamiliar to many children her age: cancer.
In the summer of 2010, 11-year-old Grace’s left knee started hurting. At first, her family wasn’t concerned — everyone thought Grace, who played goalie, was just getting a bit too rough on the field. But as the pain worsened over time, Grace’s mother, Elizabeth, took her to the family pediatrician.
The pediatrician sent Grace for x-rays. Mrs. Franzese felt nervous.
“Our pediatrician wasn’t really an alarmist, and in my years of seeing her, she had never once ordered x-rays for us,” she recalled.
Hours later, the family received terrible news: Grace had a malignant cyst on her thighbone.
The pediatrician explained that Grace most likely had one of two pediatric cancers: Ewing sarcoma, a cancer of the bones and soft tissue, or osteosarcoma, a cancer that arises in bones. Both cancers are very rare, collectively affecting fewer than 1,000 children in the United States each year. She told the Franzeses to go to Memorial Sloan Kettering.
Meeting Dr. Boland
Oncologic surgeon Patrick Boland put the family at ease immediately.
“He said, I think we can save her leg, but I won’t know for sure until we get in there and see what it is,” Mrs. Franzese recalled.
After Grace went through what she recalls as “every type of scan in the world,” she had a bone biopsy, which confirmed osteosarcoma in her leg. A CT scan had also picked up a suspicious spot on Grace’s lung, but because her leg was prone to infection, her MSK doctors decided to start treatment there. It was a group effort, Dr. Boland remembered.
“I worked closely with the pediatric medical oncologists to coordinate the best treatment,” he said.
Out in Time for Halloween
A week later, Grace began an intense chemotherapy regimen under the care of pediatric oncologist Paul Meyers. She was in treatment 12 hours a day, five days a week.
Chemotherapy shrank her tumor enough that, by October, Dr. Boland could take it out. It was a major surgery, but Dr. Boland was able to salvage Grace’s leg by implanting a titanium rod and knee prosthesis. Grace spent about two weeks recovering at the hospital, and while her memory of the experience is a bit fuzzy, she does recall how she felt under her team’s care.
“I remember everyone was really, really great,” she said. “It went as well as the experience could have been. Everyone was always very helpful and nice.”
Her mother remembers how touched she was when Dr. Boland came in on his day off to ensure that Grace could go home in time for Halloween, her favorite holiday. That year, Grace dressed up as a gypsy and was able to join her friends for trick-or-treating.
An Early Christmas Present
Shortly after her surgery, Grace had another round of chemo to prevent the cancer from coming back. Before Christmas, she underwent another operation with pediatric surgeon Michael LaQuaglia. Dr. LaQuaglia performed a thoracotomy — a chest surgery — to confirm that the cancer had spread to her lungs.
While Grace was under anesthesia, Dr. Boland took the opportunity to manipulate her leg so that the scar tissue around her knee would soften and she would have more flexibility. In fact, every time Grace had to have any procedure under anesthesia, Dr. Boland came in to adjust her.
“It helped a lot in terms of what I can do [today],” Grace said.
In a Christmas miracle, Grace was discharged from the hospital on December 23. Before bidding farewell to Dr. Boland, Mrs. Franzese asked if he’d be working over the holiday.
“He said, ‘Of course I am — my patients are here,’” Mrs. Franzese recalled. “It’s one thing to be likeable, but he’s also just so dedicated.”
Back to School, and Chemo
Grace continued chemo into the spring. She was able to recover enough to start eighth grade that fall, though just for a short time: In January 2012, her scans showed two new spots in her lungs. The family felt like they were back at square one.
“We were back in chemo 12 hours a day, five days a week for a year,” Mrs. Franzese remembered. Grace also underwent another thoracotomy.
But her resilience was extraordinary. Just weeks after her surgery, Grace took the stage for her middle school play, The Wiz.
“Throughout treatment — surgery and chemotherapy — Grace showed tremendous optimism and resilience,” Dr. Boland said. “She got back to her daily routines as quickly as possible.”
A third thoracotomy later that spring showed that, thankfully, there were no new nodules. Grace continued chemo into December 2012, and the treatment worked: Deemed cancer-free, Grace returned to school — she was now in ninth grade — with a dogged refusal to fall behind. She did an entire semester’s worth of work over Christmas break.
“It was a big adjustment,” she said. “The train had already taken off.”
But she managed to catch up to it, and then some. Grace earned a nearly perfect score on her SATs, got 100% on her New York State Regents Exams, and was a semifinalist for a prestigious National Merit Scholarship, the only student in her school district to earn the honor. She was accepted to a bevy of first-rate colleges — including Princeton, Harvard, Duke, and Vanderbilt — and decided on Wake Forest University, in North Carolina, which gave her a full scholarship.
Grace graduated from high school in June and celebrated the milestone with her MSK family, too. She attended the Department of Pediatrics’ annual prom with her younger brother, as well as MSK convocation, which unites current and former patients as they close out the school year.
A Bright Future
Mrs. Franzese says she is so happy and appreciative that her daughter has the opportunities that lie before her. And she’s incredibly grateful to the team of doctors who saved young Grace’s life.
“All of them were very warm and very calming to us, especially considering how grave the matter was,” she recalled. “You could feel the compassion they had.”
No stranger to success, Grace has already made her school’s comedy troupe. She is undecided on a major and looks forward to discovering her emerging passions.
“I spent so much time in the hospital that I didn’t really have a lot of time to figure out what I like,” she said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to explore.”