CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – In February 2008, Drew Wall was an active and energetic 11-year-old.
He played basketball in multiple youth leagues, and also enjoyed playing baseball in the summer. He was healthy and everything seemed fine until Wall developed pain in his knee. A trip to the doctor ended up flipping the Wall family's world upside down.
Wall was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer, that led to the amputation of part of his right leg, which has been replaced by a prosthetic limb. His extraordinary strength, courage and determination has kept the disease from slowing him down, finishing his freshman season on the Cedar Rapids Kennedy golf team this fall.
"My main mission is to be normal," Wall said. "Be who I would be if I didn't have cancer. That means going to school, doing your homework, hanging out with friends, even amongst all this chemotherapy."
Wall has become an inspiration to many who have heard his story at numerous speaking engagements, including American cancer society's relay For Life, Mercy Hospital's Cancer Survivor's day and for Children's Miracle Network. Wall also spoke at the Kirk Ferentz Kickoff Luncheon at the Chariton in downtown Iowa City in August. The audience of about 300 people included Gov. Terry Branstad, UI President Sally Mason and members from the Board of Regents, according to his dad, Doug Wall.
The impression Wall made garnered an invitation to the Hawkeyes football practice on Sunday, Oct. 2, where he spoke to the players preparing for their Big Ten opener Saturday, Oct. 8 at Penn State in State College, Pa.
"He really has been able to communicate well," Doug Wall said. "he has such a great story to tell and has such a great attitude, and people want to hear him.
"He's very humble, but he's very much a role model and inspiration, not only for other children but any adult."
Wall was just a fifth-grader when diagnosed, visiting a doctor after a week break from activities caused by the painful knee. The doctor encouraged getting an X-Ray, which resulted in the family receiving a phone call the night of the imaging test notifying them something wasn't right with his tibia. More tests were scheduled and within a week they were shocked to learn of the cancer.
"It absolutely changes your world," Doug Wall said. "It sure does."
Wall began treatment going to the University of Iowa Children's Hospital for chemotherapy. Toward the end of the 12-week program, the Walls were faced a tough decision. They could opt for limb-salvage surgery, replacing the bone with a replacement from a cadaver, or amputate from the knee down. The choice was obvious, according to Wall, who already had his mind set on involved in activities, which is a way of life for the family. wall's mother, Robin, was an all-state basketball player for Kennedy, and his dad was a standout at Cedar Rapids Jefferson.
"Amputation was pretty easy since I wanted to still be active," said Wall, who progressed from walkiing with two crutches to one then to a cane and didn't even have a limp by the end of the year, and can even lightly jog on it now. "It was a little tougher on my parents as you could imagine."
Doug Wall said it was hard on everybody, but functionally it was the only way to go, avoiding a possibility of being on crutches forever. He said his son didn't have the body image issues of many adults. Wall remains a rock, persevering through countless rounds of chemotherapy, enduring sessions often as once a week, and six surgeries to remove metastases that have form, ranging in size from a pea to a baseball since middle school.
"We are blessed with his attitude and strength," Doug Wall said. "His mother and I have been fortunate."
The journey has been overwhelming at times, struggling to cope with some recurring tumors and extended treatment. Wall clings to his faith, which serves as a cornerstone to his family, and envisions a cancer-free future for relief.
"I do sometimes think God is putting too much on me," Wall said, "but I know that it will all be better in the end when I'm done and 'Whew! I'm glad that's over.' "
Wall was a member of the Taft swim team and even took lesson and skied at Sundown Mountain near Dubuque last winter. He even earned a brown belt in tae kwon Do, which Doug Wall said helped with his agility with his artificial limb.
Keeping your energy level up is nearly impossible during radiation treatments.
"That's the frustrating part of this, because it doesn't really wipe you out but it just lowers your active level so much you aren't necessarily fit," Wall said. "You can't walk up stairs without losing your breath, so it's not fun."
Wall said he could still play baseball and basketball, but admits he wouldn't be as good. Golf, on the other hand, presented an opportunity to play and reach a successful level.
"I decided golf is one of those sports that I could actually be really good at with an amputation so that's why I decided to take it up," said Wall, who began lessons as a seventh-grader and went out a year later. "So far, I've never regretted it. I love playing."
Kennedy coach Mark Wilden called wall the most inspirational person he knows, and that was reaffirmed earlier this year when Wall had to have more metastases removed from his lung in September. Two weeks later, Wall returned to practice, chipping and putting. Kennedy assistant boys golf and head girls coach helped distribute bracelets that said "Prayers for Drew" to the team to support him during the latest procedure.
"I'm very thankful for that," Wall said about the support from his team.
Wall's spirit has influenced his teammates, according to Bush. The team sees his effort while taking on a bigger opponent.
"It's kind of rubbing off on some of the other kids," Bush said. "The other kids have noticed that he's always there helping. He's always nice. He's always out here."
Golf provides a brief escape. A route to normalcy, being a regular teenager on the team, spending time with friends on the course. He focuses on swings and not chemotherapy treatments. Tumors, surgeries and hospital stays give way to drives, chips and putts.
"I don't feel like I'm a cancer patient when I'm playing golf or hanging out with everyone," Wall said. "That's what I like about doing it."
Wall has a passion for golf. When he started the prep season he shot in the 70s for nine holes. According to Bush, he dropped to 56 in about two weeks. Wall said he puts every ounce of effort into improving his game. He desires to drop his score in the 40s.
"I love it. I look forward to practice every day," said Wall, who rides a cart because he cannot carry a golf bag long distances. "It's just fun to play because I feel normal then. I feel like I'm not held back by my amputation."
Wall, who will take part in tests for a daily pill to treat cancer as an alternative to chemotherapy, remains optimistic the worst is behind him. He has learned one key lesson that would benefit anyone - appreciate what you have each day.
"Don't take anything for granted," Wall said. "I used to take for granted that I had two legs, that i could run, that I can play basketball. Now, I really am grateful for everything that happened in my life."