Edwards Feature


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Edwards Feature

  1. 1. Page 1 156 of 728 DOCUMENTS St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) May 14, 2007 Monday Correction Appended THIRD EDITIONJV tennis, all-world courage For St. Louis U. High freshman Chris Zandstra,playing on a team means much more than it does to most students. It made hima winner before he ever played a match.BYLINE: Story by Brian Sumers Photos by J.B. Forbes St. Louis Post-DispatchSECTION: SPORTS; Pg. B1LENGTH: 1947 wordsThe routine never changes.Each night, just before bed, Diane Zandstra opens the door to her son Chris room and sits on his bed. He hits the mutebutton on the remote, and the two pray."Thank you, God," they say, "for another day."Then Diane sprinkles holy water on her son. First on his forehead. Then his right knee. Then his stomach. If Chris hascoughed that day, she drops water on his chest.Chris is 15, long past the age at which mothers tuck in their children at night. But he is OK with it, because he does notwant the cancer to return. He wants to continue playing junior varsity tennis and managing the football team at SLUH.He wants to continue his life.The doctors tell Diane her son is special. Chris has battled three primary cancers. Not one cancer that returned threetimes. Three different cancers.First came cancer of the nervous system, found when he was a baby. Then bone cancer at 12. And in July - just when allseemed OK - liver cancer."It is almost impossible," said Dr. Riad Salem, his physician at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago and one ofthe 32 doctors Chris said he has visited. "Multiple cancers like this are very rare, especially in a child."Yet through all of his sicknesses and treatments - even the amputation of his right leg below the knee - sports haveprovided comfort for Chris. After he lost his leg in sixth grade, he played soccer again the next fall, taking the field witha titanium leg and an awkward gait. When he whacked an opposing player with his leg, hed squeal, "Im sorry, not myfault."So even now, between trips to Chicago for an experimental liver cancer treatment, Chris plays tennis. He is not great,but his junior varsity coach said hes deserving of a roster spot. And when hes joking around on the tennis court or
  2. 2. Page 2JV tennis, all-world courage For St. Louis U. High freshman Chris Zandstra, playing on a team means much more thanit does to most students. It made him a winner before he ever played a match. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) May 14, 2007 Monday Correction Appendedchasing a lob shot, the sport helps him forget about being sick."He likes being around other children," his mother said. "He loves the sportsmanship of being on a team. Chris will playany game."Chris screamed from the moment he was born, and at 4 months, doctors discovered why. They found cancer in hisabdomen, and though it went into remission with chemotherapy, it returned when Chris turned 3.This was Halloween. By Christmas, the doctors said, Chris would die."How can you speak these words about my child?" Diane Zandstra wondered. "Hes in preschool."The cancer, called neuroblastoma, affects about 650 people each year in the United States, nearly all of them youngchildren. And though Chris survived the scare, his mother said the treatments forever changed his life.Doctors soon discovered Chris had a speech delay that required language therapy, and he still speaks with a slight lisp.His growth was also stunted, and Diane remembers how his height never appeared on the percentile charts doctors useto measure children. (Chris took growth hormones for seven years but stopped the therapy after his bone cancer.)As Chris got older, he started realizing what was happening during routine checkups. He did not like it when nursesdrew blood or technicians strapped him down for an X-ray."Mommy," he would say, "have them stop this."When Chris was in sixth grade and doctors discovered bone cancer in his foot, Diane allowed him to choose histreatment. Chemotherapy and radiation would not work, so Chris was told he could either have the heel removed andkeep his foot, which would be useless, or he could have his leg amputated below the knee.His mother told Chris how cool it would be to have a "robot foot." He cried briefly - maybe about 30 seconds - and heagreed. With a prosthetic limb, he knew, he could still play sports."Take it off," he told the doctor.The surgery happened quickly, though the recovery did not. Despite his small size, Chris had played basketball andsoccer at St. Francis of Assisi. The cancer cut short his sixth-grade basketball season, and for five months he could notwalk or run. "I felt like I couldnt do anything," he said.Sometimes, he felt his foot was being crushed or his toes were being pulled apart. But he looked down, and nothing wasthere.Doctors expected the bone cancer to recur in 12 months. It has not returned yet, but when doctors scanned his body inJuly, they found another cancer - a spot on his liver. Doctors in St. Louis gave him 12 weeks to live without a livertransplant, but no one told Chris until recently."Two weeks before that, I thought he had never looked better," his mother said. "In my wildest nightmare, I neverthought of a third primary cancer."For a second opinion, Chris and his mom traveled to Childrens Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where doctors hadtreated him as a child. His mother remembers how many of the doctors and nurses - many of whom had not seen him inmore than a decade - smiled when they learned Chris was still alive. "They were just thrilled to see him," Diane said.Rather than trying a liver transplant, doctors at Childrens removed 80 percent of his liver, then recommended anexperimental treatment at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
  3. 3. Page 3JV tennis, all-world courage For St. Louis U. High freshman Chris Zandstra, playing on a team means much more thanit does to most students. It made him a winner before he ever played a match. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) May 14, 2007 Monday Correction AppendedSalem, his oncologist, said Chris is the youngest patient ever treated with TheraSpheres, a cluster of microscopicradioactive glass beads that attack the cancer. The treatment has shrunk the tumor, but not eliminated it. Withoutcontinued treatment, his mother said, it will continue to grow.Chris, however, remains undaunted."I never thought I was going to die," Chris said. "I never think of death, really."His doctors are wary of cause-and-effect relationships, but the Zandstras suspect treatments from his early cancer mayhave caused other health problems. The growth hormones Chris started at 5, Diane said, may have contributed to thebone cancer; "I was injecting him all those years."Diane wanted to make her sons life as normal as possible, but when Chris approached her this winter and said he wastrying out for the SLUH junior varsity tennis team, she wondered if it was possible.His treatment left Chris feeling groggy and tired most days. And he hadnt played tennis for five years, since before helost his leg. She wondered if he might embarrass himself, but when he told her he had to at least try, she could not keephim from the court. He started hitting a ball against the garage door with a borrowed racket."I wanted to see how good I am," Chris said. "I love to play sports. Ill try anything."He had wanted to play since November, when the varsity tennis coach, Dennis Dougan, came to Chris homeroom andasked the students to try out for the team. Chris agreed immediately."If you know Chris, youve got to believe him," said Dougan, also Chris counselor.His liver cancer, however, posed a problem. Chris travels to Chicago every two months to see his doctors, and when hereturns, he is often more tired than usual. In early March, just as tryouts were continuing, he needed his second round oftreatment.Chris did not know it when he left, but he was a near lock to make the team. Early in tryouts, he had beaten two playersof similar skill level, and the teams coach, English teacher David Callon, wanted to reward him.Still, Chris returned to the court on a cold, windy afternoon after a weekend in Chicago. Both his mother and Callontold him not to overexert himself. Instead, Chris continued playing tennis until he felt he would faint."I went a little crazy," he admitted, saying he shouldnt have worn a long-sleeved T-shirt and shorts. On that afternoon,however, he did not complain, except to say things like "the radiation took a lot out of me.""He baited me into thinking it was all OK," Callon said.The next two days, Chris did not attend school. He had a fever and barely left his bed. But he had made the team."His mom called us, crying, saying she was going to dedicate Masses in our names," Callon said. "To her, that was anaffirmation that her son could be a normal teenager."Thirty-five students tried out for the junior varsity tennis team, and just 15 made it. Callon said Chris deserves to be onthe team - he has won more matches than he has lost - but acknowledges a special affinity for the teenager, saying theexperience of being on a team is important for Chris.During matches, Chris hobbles near the net wearing a slightly too large team T-shirt and blue shorts. Though he has thelarge hands of an adult, he is just 5 feet tall - shorter than nearly all of his teammates. His prosthesis starts just below hisright knee and looks more robotic than real.
  4. 4. Page 4JV tennis, all-world courage For St. Louis U. High freshman Chris Zandstra, playing on a team means much more thanit does to most students. It made him a winner before he ever played a match. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) May 14, 2007 Monday Correction AppendedCallon began the season by quietly approaching the opposing coach and explaining Chris health problems. Then Chrisstarted winning some of his doubles matches, and it seemed less important. His teammates also dont seem to care aboutthe way he looks.Like everyone else at school, Chris teammates call him "The Dutch Boy" -- a nod to his Dutch heritage. He playsexclusively doubles, fluctuating between the No. 4 and the No. 7 team. He is slower to the ball than most of histeammates, and he must start each point farther from the net than most players so he can defend against lobs and dropshots. Callon said some teammates prefer not to play with him, but most dont mind covering the extra ground. Theseconcessions bother Chris little."It feels really good to be out there with my friends and play sports with them," he said.During the winter, Chris told his mom he didnt really care if Callon selected him; he now admits how important it was."I really wanted to make the team," he said, smiling.His friends say he always talks about tennis; in his afternoon theology class, he gives daily updates. They also sayeveryone at SLUH knows him, if only because of the gag he pulled on Halloween. That day, he turned his prostheticfoot so the heel faced forward, and most folks chuckled."He has missed school for weeks, yet he always comes back laughing," said Jamie Hagan, also a freshman. "It makesyou feel like, Wow, that kid is amazing. "When doctors told Chris he would be the first adolescent to receive the experimental treatment, he told them he hoped itwould help them understand how to treat future patients even if it did not work for him.For now, however, there is reason for optimism. In mid-March, doctors said the liver looked good and he need notreturn until the final week in May. And they told him to play as much tennis as he wants.Still, no one knows what to expect. Even if the liver cancer remains dormant, the bone cancer could return and spread,perhaps to his lungs, where it would do the most damage. His doctor declines to speculate."Prognoses apply when you have statistics on thousands of patients," Salem said. "There are no patients like Chris.They just dont exist."Chris doesnt dwell on the worst possibilities, but he wonders what would have happened if he never had cancer. Helooks at his large hands and knows he might have grown taller than 6 feet, like his dad."I dont think about being in the hospital," he said. "I try to imagine what a normal life would be like. Maybe I would bea track star. Or maybe I wouldnt play sports at all. Who knows?"Even Chris wonders how he has lived so long, how he has proved so many doctors wrong. Though there are noguarantees he will be able to play tennis next spring, he remains optimistic.In the short term, Chris will fill his life as best he can. This summer, hell visit Spain with his cousin, SLUH juniorGabriel Lima, and the school Spanish Club. Hell also continue visiting his dad each month in Chicago. And on June 16,hell get his drivers license.There are plans for the future, too. Someday, Chris said, he hopes to become a doctor."I guess Gods on my side," he said. "Maybe I have something important to do in life."LOAD-DATE: June 26, 2007
  5. 5. Page 5JV tennis, all-world courage For St. Louis U. High freshman Chris Zandstra, playing on a team means much more thanit does to most students. It made him a winner before he ever played a match. St. Louis Post-Dispatch (Missouri) May 14, 2007 Monday Correction AppendedLANGUAGE: ENGLISHCORRECTION: Correction published, Friday, May 18, 2007. St. Louis University High School freshman ChrisZandstra attended sixth grade at St. Clare of Assisi. The school was identified incorrectly in a report in Mondays Sportssection.GRAPHIC: PHOTO PHOTO - St. Louis U. High freshman Chris Zandstra competes in tennis with his teammates last week in Forest Park.Photo by J.B. Forbes o St. Louis Post-Dispatch PHOTO - Kent Butzin, director of prosthetics at Orthotic & ProstheticLab Inc., helps Chris Zandstra fit into a new prosthetic leg. Photo by J.B. Forbes o St. Louis Post-Dispatch PHOTO -Chris Zandstra jumps regularly on his backyard trampoline with his younger sister, Ana Zandstra, 5. Chris got approvalfrom his doctor before he went back to the trampoline after getting a prosthetic leg. Photo by J.B. Forbes o St. LouisPost-Dispatch PHOTO - Chris Zandstra stops to take some of the medicines that he must take twice a day, every day,because of his previous fights against cancer. Photo by J.B. Forbes o St. Louis Post-Dispatch PHOTO - SLUH juniorvarsity tennis player Chris Zandstra gets a pat from SLUHs star varsity player, Abe Souza, last week during matchesbetween the varsity and junior varsity. Photo by J.B. Forbes o St. Louis Post-DispatchDOCUMENT-TYPE: PROFILEPUBLICATION-TYPE: Newspaper Copyright 2007 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Inc. All Rights Reserved