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A Career Back on Track, Despite Bone Cancer

Article date: February 14, 2007

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"I love to share my story. In high school, I didn't know anything about cancer, and it's so important for our young people to know about the symptoms and what to look for. It's the last thing that you think about."

 

Craig King goes to work each day knowing he is making a difference. Part of it goes with the territory. A third-grade teacher, King spends his days helping the 17 kids in his class master basic skills in math, social studies, and language arts.

But the 25-year-old brings something extra to the classroom, too. He's living proof that cancer doesn't have to derail your plans, even if you're young when you get it. "I let my students know I had cancer," says King, who teaches at Whittaker Elementary School in Orangeburg, SC. "I hope none of my [students] experience cancer, but if that happens… they can look back and say, 'Mr. King did it and I can, too.' "

College Postponed

King's cancer story started in 1999, when he was a 17-year-old graduate of Manning High School in Manning, SC (population 4,025). A football and baseball player, he planned to attend South Carolina State University that fall. Those plans were put on hold in July though, after King was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone tumor. For months prior to his diagnosis, King had been living with a lump below his left knee. "It didn't hurt," he recalls, and being so active, he just assumed it was some type of sports injury and ignored it. Then one day, while making his bed, he bumped his leg and was shocked by the pain. Two doctors were stumped by the problem. "At that point, I was scared," King says. He was referred to a third physician, who gave him the bad news. King would be starting cancer treatment, not college. Worse yet, he might lose his leg. "It didn't hit me initially," King remembers. "When I got home I realized the impact. I wanted my leg!"

Light at the End of the Tunnel

His treatment was difficult and lengthy. Surgeons replaced King's left tibia, or shin bone, with a healthy tibia acquired from a bone bank and attached with metal supports. His left kneecap was removed and reconstructed. His chemotherapy treatments lasted nearly a year. It took months of physical therapy for him to learn to walk again. "I was bedridden for a while after surgery, and then had a wheelchair," he recalls. "I went from the wheelchair to a brace, to crutches, to a walker, and then walking alone." During this time, King found lots of support in his family, friends, and church. He also found it in the American Cancer Society. His first contact with ACS came after a hospital counselor told him about Relay For Life, the annual event held in communities across the country and the world to celebrate cancer survivors and remember those who have been lost to the disease, as well as raise funds for cancer research and programs. King says he had heard of the event, and even walked around the track at his local Relay a few times, "but I never knew the true meaning." Soon after, he learned of an ACS program to help young cancer survivors pursue higher education. Through the South Atlantic Division of ACS, which serves South Carolina, King received scholarships that helped him pay for each of his 4 years of college. He graduated from South Carolina State University in 2004 with a degree in elementary education and has been teaching third grade ever since.

Giving Back to the Community

King's involvement with ACS didn't end at graduation, though. He and his family now field a Relay team -- they raised more than $5,000 last year -- and his college fraternity, Omega Psi Phi, continues the Relay tradition he began there during his sophomore year. Last fall, King served as an Ambassador for Celebration on the Hill, an ACS event held in Washington, DC, to get lawmakers to support greater cancer research funding. King supports other cancer-related causes, too. Each summer, he works as a counselor at Camp Kemo, a summer camp for kids with cancer and their siblings that he attended during his own treatment. He also spends time at the children's cancer center in Columbia, SC, cheering up the kids in treatment. That's a passion he wants to pursue professionally. King is in his last semester of coursework to earn a master's degree in rehabilitation counseling. Eventually, he hopes to work as a counselor for children with cancer. For now, though, King is happy where he is. "I love my job," he says. "What gets me going every day is the realization that these kids could have never met me because cancer could have taken my life. But it didn't. God spared me and I have a purpose."