At first, Jacob Bredenhof’s doctor thought that the 14-year-old just had the aches and pains of a typical, active teenager.
Bredenhof played basketball, ran around with his three younger brothers and helped out on his family’s farm — not to mention he just went through a significant growth spurt — so some pain in his left knee didn’t seem out of the ordinary. But that pain soon turned into a large, solid mass that forced him to crawl up the stairs to get around the house.
Bredenhof’s mom, Tracey, took him back to the doctor, and she immediately knew the situation was more severe than just a little inflammation.
“He’s been my doctor since I was 12, and I could see on his face that something was really, really wrong,” Tracey, 34, tells PEOPLE. “We got an x-ray and when we got back home I told my husband that I think it’s really bad, I think it’s cancer. About four hours after the x-ray I got a phone call, and they said, ‘We need you to come back right now, and the doctor is requesting that you bring your spouse along with you.’ And that’s when I knew, 100 percent, that it was cancer.”
“It was like I was hit by a train,” she says. “My limbs went numb and I could barely walk.”
Their doctor referred the family to a specialist, and said that Jacob likely had osteosarcoma, an extremely rare form of bone cancer. Doctors at the British Columbia Children’s Hospital in Vancouver confirmed that diagnosis 17 days later, and started Jacob on the first of 18 rounds of aggressive chemotherapy.
He went through six rounds of chemo from June through September while prepping for surgery. Tracey warned Jacob that his left leg would have to be amputated in some way, but laid out his three options — a full amputation, which was the worst option in terms of pain and mobility; a leg salvage surgery, which meant inserting metal rods in his leg and never running or jumping again, because of the fragile material; or a rotationplasty, an uncommon surgery that meant amputating from mid-thigh to mid-calf, rotating the lower leg 180 degrees and reattaching the foot backwards, to use as a knee joint.
“He chose rotationplasty, which surprised me a bit and also didn’t, based on his character,” Tracey says. “But he chose it because he wants to play sports again, he wants to run, he wants to work on the farm, he wants to play with his brothers. He was able to look past the social implications of having a backwards foot on a small leg in order to have that mobility. I think he showed a lot of foresight and bravery for such a young man.”
The surgery, on Oct. 4, took nine hours and required cutting his main vein and artery. But it went well, and the doctors were able to keep his nerve and recoil it in his lower leg, meaning he could continue to move his foot the way he used to.
The recovery was “excruciating,” for three weeks, and soon after Jacob went back into the brutal chemotherapy treatments that cause bad nausea, loss of appetite, bowel problems and allergic reactions. But he’s never complained once, Tracey says.
“It is remarkable how he’s handled everything,” she says. “He hasn’t been able to start high school and he’s never complained about that. Not once, going into surgery, did he say that he didn’t want this to happen. He just takes everything as it comes and is very accepting of everything that’s been put on his path so far.”
Doctors gave Jacob a 60 percent chance of survival based on the usual treatment for osteosarcoma — a plan that hasn’t changed in the last 40 years, Tracey says.
“There have been no advances in treatment or prognosis in about 40 years, which is fairly disheartening to hear,” she says. “Part of the problem is that only about 4 percent of money raised or from the government goes to pediatric cancers. In the last 30 years, there’s only been 3 new chemos approved for children, and for adults there’s been about 70. So that’s frustrating. My son is getting a treatment that’s incredibly hard on his organs, and these kids have lasting problems. I just think our kids deserve better.”
Jacob is now on round 14 of chemotherapy, and once he finishes with the last one he’ll start rehab with a prosthetic leg.
“His goal is to play basketball again, and he’d like to get a dirtbike!” Tracey says, with a laugh.
She says that the last nine months of treatment have been difficult, but their faith and help from friends has made it easier.
“Part of it for him is that he accepts the path that he’s on,” she says. “And all the support has been phenomenal, from our church community and our family and our friends and the people around the world who are following his journey. All of that really helps us. I could not be more proud of him.”
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