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Art transforms into compassion
Contributed by Ms Sheila Belshaw living in United Kingdom.

My brave Andrew's mighty battle to fly

When my son, Andrew was diagnosed with bone cancer, I fought for him to keep his leg and his dream of a flying career.

Every mother wants her children to fulfil their dreams and I never imagined that my son Andrew wouldn't be brilliant at whatever he wanted to do. He had been extremely successful at school and, at 18, his dream to become a pilot seemed set to become reality when he won an RAF scholarship to learn to fly. Shortly after, though, he was diagnosed with bone cancer.


One day, seemingly out of the blue, he began to suffer terrible pains in his right leg. We took him to hospital but it was not until 10 days later that we got the diagnosis. Andrew had osteosarcoma, a galloping bone cancer which targets teenagers. He had only a 15 per cent chance of survival. The surgeon said amputating the leg was his only hope and planned to do so the next week.

We were all devastated. Andrew went into a deep depression. As a mother, I felt helpless and frightened - without hope. Then, just before the amputation, we were urged to seek a second opinion by a friend.

He had had heard about a revolutionary treatment for osteosarcoma being pioneered by Mr Rodney Sweetnam and his team at The Middlesex Hospital in London. It would involve three months of chemotherapy, then surgery to replace the knee, tibia and part of the femur with a titanium implant. Then another three months of chemotherapy. Even with these drastic measures, Sweetnam wasn't sure whether he could save the leg and Andrew had to give permission for his leg to be amputated if necessary.

The operation lasted five hours. I was so worried that his leg would have to be amputated and when we were finally allowed into his room, my heart seemed to be beating a thousand times an hour.

He was still unconscious when we went in but, miraculously, the surgeons had saved his leg. It gave us all renewed hope and later reinforced Andrew's determination to survive. In hospital, he studied for A levels, doing his exams between bouts of nausea and vomiting.

I kept smiling, though it was not easy to watch a strong, healthy boy brought down by the vicious chemo drugs. There were some days when I felt so hopeless, I spent a lot of time crying - we all did. I kept telling myself that Andrew would survive. I knew that staying positive was the only thing we could do as a family to help him.

Because of the chemotherapy, his immune system almost collapsed. I attended lectures on alternative methods of dealing with cancer. I learned that large doses of vitamin C and positive "language behaviour" might help, but that to survive Andrew must draw on his inner strength.

I became single-minded, concentrating on giving Andrew positive thoughts. I kept myself healthy so that I would not collapse. Andrew started working for Singapore Airlines in 1986 in Manchester where he remained for 5 years. In 1990 I was amazed when he was accepted on a flying course in South Africa at 43 Air School. We had thought that no one would accept him with his disability.

There was still not enough strength in Andrew's leg to handle the plane's rudder pedal, so he devised a method of directing strength from his hip.

In Manchester, he gained his Private Pilot's Licence and celebrated by flying a single engine aircraft a triumphant 4,500 miles across Africa. There were further operations to improve his prosthesis. Andrew rarely mentioned the pain, but at his bedside was a book about the power of the mind.

Yet Andrew's leg was about to make history! At the London Bone Tumour Service at The Middlesex Hospital, Dr Gordon Blunn and Mr Justin Cobb were pioneering another revolutionary prosthesis, designed to last for life.

Andrew was one of the first to receive one. His new implant was impregnated with a substance similar in molecular structure to bone, which promoted new bone growth.

Andrew is now 35 and lives in Cambridgeshire.He is the Senior Air traffic controller at RAF Wyton, Cambridgeshire UK, and he still has his private pilot's licence. I'll never forget how ill he was but he never complained.

I was very proud of him for that.


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