Soft Tissue Sarcoma Survivor Becomes World-Class Athlete

Written By:Stacy Simon

Editor's note August 17, 2015: J. Dee Marinko and Team USA are headed to the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil in the summer of 2016. They earned their spot by defeating Canada in a tough four-set semifinal match on Friday, August 14. Marinko said, "We had a hard-fought tourney and it paid off."

When Brazil hosts the Paralympic Games in 2016, J. Dee Marinko wants to be among the competitors. Marinko has been playing for the US Sitting Volleyball team since he lost his foot to cancer in 2009. He said, “I’m lucky enough now to be able to represent my country in athletic endeavor – something I never dreamed of.”

Marinko was 28 years old and working as an Air Force base supply tech in Edmund, Oklahoma when he went to the doctor complaining of pain in his foot. He thought he’d injured it somehow, but an MRI revealed a cyst. He had it removed, and was stunned when the biopsy report came back positive for cancer.

Synovial sarcoma

Marinko was diagnosed with synovial sarcoma, a cancerous tumor of the capsule around joints (the synovium). The most common locations are the knee and ankle, but it can also appear in the shoulder or hip. This tumor is more common in children and young adults, though it sometimes occurs in older people.

A synovial sarcoma is a type of soft tissue sarcoma. These cancers develop from soft tissues like fat, muscle, nerves, fibrous tissues, blood vessels, or deep skin tissues. They can be found in any part of the body, but most of them develop in the arms or legs. About 6,000 men and 5,000 women are diagnosed with soft tissue sarcoma each year.

This kind of cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or targeted therapy, depending on the type or location of the tumor and whether it has spread. In Marinko’s case, doctors recommended amputation as the best option for saving his life.

Marinko said he and his wife didn’t spend a lot of time making a decision. He said his infant son was the main factor. Marinko said, “I saw my baby crawling across the floor and I thought, ‘I can’t let him grow up without a dad.’ This isn’t about me. This is about everybody around me. I have to be here for everybody else.”

Opening doors

"I want people to know when they hear the word cancer, it's not associated with death anymore. When the doctor told me I had cancer I thought about death. Then I found a way to beat it. I want to share my story and the glimmer of hope. I want to let people know that this isn't a death."

J. Dee Marinko

Just 2 weeks after surgeons removed his foot, Marinko was back at work. Marinko said, “I had to do it because I couldn’t let it get me down. I’ve got kids and I want to prove to them that no matter what happens, you have to find a way to get through it.”

A former wide receiver for Oklahoma Panhandle State University’s football team, Marinko missed being active and began looking for an athletic outlet. It turned out there was an opportunity right around the corner. The US Sitting Volleyball team trained in Marinko’s hometown of Edmund. He began training, and after only 4 months, made the team. They won a silver medal in the Parapan American Games in Mexico in 2011, and hope to go to the Paralympics in Brazil in 2016 to compete for gold.

Marinko said losing his foot to cancer led to the opportunity to play volleyball and gave him the opportunity to tell his story and inspire others.

He said, “I truly feel blessed that I was diagnosed with cancer, or I wouldn’t be where I am today. Life has opened up a bunch of doors.

“I want people to know when they hear the word cancer, it’s not associated with death anymore. When the doctor told me I had cancer I thought about death. Then I found a way to beat it. I want to share my story and the glimmer of hope – I want to let people know that this isn’t a death.”

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Due to the impact of COVID-19 on American Cancer Society resources, we are no longer able to review new submissions for Stories of Hope.

American Cancer Society news stories are copyrighted material and are not intended to be used as press releases. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.