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Bouncing back after rare cartilage cancer

By Karen Butler
May 27, 2015
Brandon Lail

Brandon Lail laughs with Kelly Mulhern of the Caring House, which provides housing to adults treated for cancer at Duke.

Brandon Lail has always been known for his upbeat approach to life. However, even he had trouble staying positive after cartilage cancer took his right arm and shoulder. He credits his faith, strong support network, and team of Duke doctors for giving him the strength to bounce back.

A shoulder knot signals rare cancer

Lail, 32, first noticed a knot in his right bicep in 2012. His doctor near his hometown of Hickory, NC, referred Lail to a surgeon to have it removed. That’s when the situation turned serious. Tumors were found in the cartilage between Lail’s shoulder and arm. A biopsy came back positive. In March 2013, Lail was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma, a form of sarcoma known as cartilage tumor.

The rare cancer grows in the cartilage between joints. The tumors typically appear in adults starting around age 40. They can range from non-cancerous growths to dangerous, aggressive tumors that spread rapidly.

Getting a second opinion

The tumors in Lail’s shoulder were aggressive. During the following months, Lail underwent three more surgeries to remove tumors, but they kept coming back. In 2014 he sought a second opinion with Duke orthopaedic cancer surgeon Will Eward, MD. An MRI of his right side revealed the cancer had spread to Lail’s right lung. Thoracic surgeon Thomas D’Amico, MD, removed the three malignant growths.

Because chondrosarcoma rarely responds to chemotherapy or radiation, amputation was his only option. In May 2014, Dr. Eward removed his right arm, shoulder blade and clavicle. 

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If it weren’t for Dr. Eward and Dr. D’Amico discovering cancer in my lung, I might not be here today.”

Support system, faith, help the healing process

“At first I fell into a deep depression,” recounted Lail.  “I’ve always been known for my ability to bounce back from difficulty. But after being told I had to have both my arm and shoulder amputated, I wasn’t sure what was left of my life.”

With the support of his family, friends, co-workers, and church, Lail started the healing process. “Fortunately, I was surrounded by great people who allowed me to vent but who were also always ready to reassure and encourage me.”

Lail began to rebound. He rededicated his life to God. “At some point I began to realize that I was not alone. With that realization, a transformation took place. Rather than feel sorry for myself, I was becoming grateful – grateful for life, second chances and new beginnings.”

Fortunate to be alive

Every three months Lail undergoes lung scans and meets with his team of cancer specialists to ensure his cancer remains at bay.

“I am so fortunate to be alive,” said Lail. “My first team of specialists did not realize my cancer had metastasized. If it wasn’t for Dr. Eward and Dr. D’Amico discovering cancer in my lung, I might not be here today.”

Lail isn’t out of the woods yet. In April, scans indicated the possibility of cancer returning in his right lung. While it’s too early to tell, Lail, remains optimistic. He plans to marry his longtime girlfriend when his life becomes more stable.

“It’s a win-win situation,” he said. “No matter what happens, I know God is in control and is watching out for me.”

Learn more about sarcoma treatment at Duke