In 2014, Ryan Kennington was like any other high school senior with a passion for soccer — active and full of life. Like most kids his age, he was preparing for graduation and the excitement of heading off to college.
A few months before Ryan's 18th birthday, he started to feel pain in his right hip while playing soccer with his family. Having had a prior injury to the hip, he started physical therapy to relieve the pain. Despite this, the pain worsened. Eventually, Ryan was unable to walk without using crutches due to the severity of his pain.
With physical therapy unsuccessful, Ryan had an MRI to learn more about what may be causing his hip pain. He was initially diagnosed with a benign joint condition called pigmented villonodular synovitis (PVNS), which causes inflammation of the joint.
However, soon after a surgical procedure to treat the condition, Ryan's mother Linda received a call with news that no parent is ever prepared to hear: Ryan was being referred to Dr. Kristy Weber, Chief of the Penn Medicine Orthopaedic Oncology program.
After a CT-guided needle biopsy, Ryan and his family were given the devastating news that he had high-grade osteosarcoma. This type of rare malignant bone tumor can be difficult to diagnose and treat, but Ryan was fortunate that his cancer was caught early and no cancer was found in other parts of his body.
Linda recollects that "After meeting with Dr. Weber we had a choice to make. Either Ryan would have the surgery and treatment at Penn Medicine or CHOP [the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia]. After researching Dr. Weber and osteosarcoma, my intuition gave me a good feeling about Dr. Weber. I knew that she was the one and I felt a lot of confidence in her."
Making Tough Choices
Dr. Weber met with the family to discuss treatment options. Ryan's case was complex, and Dr. Weber explained that he would have to undergo three months of chemotherapy prior to surgery.
While most kids his age were planning their senior prom and awaiting college acceptance letters, Ryan began planning for months of intensive cancer treatments. With the support of his school and teachers, he took the year off from school to focus on his treatment and recovery.
As a student athlete, one of the most emotional decisions for Ryan was permanently giving up soccer.
"It was hard to give up soccer; it was difficult to do anything related to soccer, even watching it was difficult because I knew I couldn't play," he said.
A Team Effort and a Plan for Ryan
As the time for surgery drew near, the treatment team came up with a plan that was tailored specifically to Ryan. Though the surgery was complex, they wanted to avoid leg amputation.
"The day Dr. Weber told me that she could save Ryan's leg is a day that I will never forget", said Linda.
"We coordinated with team members from both Penn Medicine and CHOP," explained Dr. Weber. "Our surgical team was not only able to remove the tumor from Ryan's hip, but he was able to undergo a specialized procedure to save part of his pelvis. This procedure, a periacetabular osteotomy, was performed in collaboration with Dr. Wudbhav Sankar from CHOP, while Drs. Derek Donegan and Neil Sheth from Penn Medicine assisted in the prosthetic reconstruction of Ryan's hip."
Following surgery, Ryan worked closely with his oncologist, Dr. Lee Hartner and physical therapists — Joseph Adler, MS, PT, and Lawrence Gatti, PT, DPT — during his recovery and chemotherapy treatments.
"I always looked forward to seeing Larry and Joe every time they visited, as they made me feel comfortable. With them, I felt like I was in the right hands," Ryan said.
Linda fondly recalled that "All of the nurses on Scheidt 7 Pennsylvania Hospital were wonderful. When you stay at the hospital 24 hours a day for 15 weeks you get to know them pretty well. I still communicate with some of them."
After recovering from surgery, Ryan returned to high school as a senior and graduated in 2016. Life was starting to return to normal. He was even becoming interested in soccer again, watching his favorite team, Manchester City, in the European Premier League.
Then the unthinkable happened: A routine follow-up CT scan showed an enlarging metastatic lesion in his lung. This would require Ryan to undergo yet another difficult surgery with Penn Medicine thoracic surgeon Dr. Sunil Singhal.
Ryan said "The pre-operative time was emotionally difficult for me, but it was also a time of finding myself and finding a new mindset that would help me stay mentally healthy. During this time, I developed a better mindset and a better way of looking at life."
The lung mass was successfully removed, and he has been cancer free since April 2016.
Dr. Weber describes Ryan as inspiring because "He never gave up, despite not being able to pursue his passion for soccer. He turned his efforts on increasing his mobility and his attention to school. He always had a can-do attitude."
A Fresh Start
After graduation, Ryan enrolled at the University of Delaware where he began the environmental engineering program. However, in his spring semester he decided he really wanted to help others in situations like his: He decided to pursue a career in pathology.
Dr. Weber introduced Ryan to the pathologist who diagnosed his cancer, Dr. Kumarasen Cooper.
"I have a profound respect and admiration for Ryan's determination, tenacity and intellectual curiosity," Dr. Cooper said. "My sentiments were echoed by colleagues who were equally impressed by his drive. I look forward to helping Ryan fulfill his dream of being a pathologist."
Ryan is motivated to live life to its fullest and is currently completing the requirements for medical school. He is hopeful to volunteer at CHOP, explaining, "I can relate to what other patients are going through because I went through it myself. The opportunity to volunteer at CHOP will also be a healing experience for me too, to show others that there is life after cancer."
"I try not to dwell in the past," Ryan explained. "I am focused on being in remission and know that if my cancer does come back that I know that it is part of the process. I know in the end I will be okay and alive." He tries to share this outlook with the family and friends that surround him.
In the fall of 2016 when his very good friend and stage 4 cancer survivor, Roman, was undergoing the removal of a tumor in his kidney, Ryan sent him a quote:
"Life has no smooth road for any us. As we go down it, we need to remember that happiness is a talent we develop, not an object we seek. It's the ability to bounce back from life's inevitable setbacks. Some people are crushed by misfortune. Others grow because of it." - Patricia Neal