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Ewing's Sarcoma put Joseph Mayer to the test 3-year-old warrior winning his battle with cancer

A thin, six-inch scar runs from just below Joseph Mayer's knee to above his ankle.

It's a reminder of where doctors in Women and Children's Hospital removed the Town of Tonawanda youngster's cancerous left fibula, the thinner of the two bones connecting the knee and ankle.

Joe, who is two months shy of turning 3, was diagnosed with rare Ewing's Sarcoma in January 2006.

Following surgery and 14 rounds of chemotherapy over 11 months, which required frequent hospital stays and trips to the emergency room, he is now cancer-free.

"It's about as lucky as you can get being unlucky," said Thomas Mayer, Joe's father.

Doctors have told him his son has a 70 percent survival rate and that his young age and having it situated far from his lungs were pluses. To monitor against the cancer's return, Joe is to have a checkup every three months over the next five years that will include blood tests, X-rays and MRI scans.

Joe is learning how to compensate for the the loss of his fibula, which affects stability, but it's too early to know whether it will impede his ability to play sports or hamper him in other ways, his parents say.

He won't need a rod to strengthen his leg, his doctors say.

Ewing's Sarcoma was first indicated by a doctor at Christmas time, when Joe's mother, Lisa Mayer, was days away from giving birth to younger brother Matthew.

After the diagnosis was confirmed in January, the family took Joe to Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City to see a leading expert in Ewing's Sarcoma. He agreed with Children's diagnosis and course of action.

Surgery lasted six hours. "Joe woke up in the recovery room and started making the sign language word for play - he wanted to go to the play room," Thomas Mayer recalled.

Next came the chemotherapy.

"Nothing was as bad as I thought it was going to be," Thomas Mayer said. "On the first day of chemotherapy, you're thinking, 'Oh my God, it's chemotherapy, this is going to be the worst thing ever.'

"It was bad, he got real sick that first night, but he finally got to sleep, woke up the next morning and said, 'Daddy, let's watch a movie.' "

Joe's parents said their friendly and easygoing son adapted well to his hospital stays.

"He was young enough not to know that other kids didn't go there," Thomas Mayer said.

"He never said, 'I don't want that medicine,' " Lisa Mayer said.

There were setbacks, like the time Joe went down a neighbor's slide and fractured his larger tibia bone, putting him in a cast for two weeks. A tube in his chest used to administer the chemotherapy got infected twice, once sending him to the intensive care unit.

"The chemo had driven down his white blood count so much that he was almost defenseless against the infection," Thomas Mayer said.

The surgery also slightly damaged a nerve that goes down his leg, preventing three toes from elevating. Surgery will be necessary if the nerve fails to regenerate as he gets older.

In all, Joe spent 67 nights in the hospital. His father, a vice president of commercial credit at M&T Bank, spent 65 of them there, while his mother tended to her newborn at home.

Joe spent his second birthday in the hospital. But family members sent dozens of cards with his favorite superheroes, and staff put a birthday banner on his door to brighten his spirits.

"The staff were so wonderful to Joe. Whenever they would see him, they would say, 'Oh, Joe,' and give him a hug. They went out of their way to try to make him comfortable," Lisa Mayer said.

Dr. Martin Brecher, chief of the division of pediatric hematology and oncology at Children's, said Joe was a joy to be with.

"He just handled everything as matter- of-factly as a kid his age can. He would laugh a lot and was incredibly cooperative for a child his age."

Brecher said he is optimistic about Joe's recovery.

"He's young for this kind of tumor, and, fortunately, it was localized and removable, both of which are very much in his favor.

"Obviously, there will be a period of monitoring, but so far so good. It's our hope and expectation that it will remain so."

e-mail: msommer@buffnews.com

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