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The joy of the climb

Triathlete Tai is back in the game after successful treatment for bone cancer.

Young man standing in front of colorful climbing wall.
Tai Wong at his local climbing gym, where he is once more a fixture.

When you’re 17 and an athlete, you’re used to a little pain here and there. In 2017, Tai Wong wasn’t just any old athlete; a Rego Park high school student, he was ranked among the fastest triathletes in his age group in New York state. But there was something about the way his knees began to hurt when he was running stairs during training that didn’t seem right, so he headed to his primary care doctor.

Tai’s future beckoned. He needed to clear up the pain to get there.

But when his doctor took a look at the X-rays, he sent Tai to see Howard Goodman, MD, an orthopedic oncologist at Northwell Health Physician Partners Orthopaedic Institute at Great Neck. The diagnosis came as a shock: Tai had a 6-centimeter tumor at the top of his tibia, the larger of the lower-leg bones that connects to the knee. It was cancer—an osteosarcoma.

The news was devastating. “It was a hard time,” Tai says, “but there was something special about Dr. Goodman. The hospital gives you confidence. They make you relax because they do an amazing job.”

An amazing job was just what Tai needed. Osteosarcoma treatment can be complex—doctors are trying to save both the patient’s limb and his life. Tai would need surgery to remove the tumor, chemotherapy to kill off any remaining cancer cells and, finally, therapy to get back in shape.

Tai’s doctors called on a blend of clinical expertise, sophisticated medical imaging and precision modeling to treat him. Using high-tech tools, they took detailed images of Tai’s anatomy and created a 3D model of his leg, including the tumor, so Dr. Goodman could plan his moves in the operating room before he even picked up a scalpel. “Having the model allowed me to concretely visualize the surgery,” he says.

Northwell’s cutting-edge approach to modeling allows doctors to tailor treatments to each patient’s unique anatomy. “For complex cases, we can simulate surgery before you actually come in,” says Todd Goldstein, PhD, director of the health system’s 3D Design and Innovation Laboratory. “This technology allows doctors to plan it, see it, feel it, live it before they get to surgery.”

Young man hoists foot up on climbing wall.
With his newly healed knee, Tai is reaching new heights.

Though there’s never a good time to get cancer, the fact that treatment is growing ever more personalized and precise is boosting the hopes of patients as their doctors become better able to deliver positive outcomes. “It’s a very good time to be a patient,” says Dr. Goldstein.

In Tai’s case, the 3D model, precisely reflecting his bones, ligaments, blood vessels and tumor, not only helped his doctors plan the surgical removal of the cancer and reconstruction of his lower leg, it also helped them describe the procedure to their patient. Seeing exactly what the surgeon would do helped Tai understand what would happen—and gave him greater peace of mind. 

The precision planning, aided by the 3D surgical guide, allowed Dr. Goodman to place his incisions strategically and to preserve more of Tai’s healthy bone and tissue than he could have otherwise. Significantly, Dr. Goodman found he could save more of the ligaments that connect bones to joints, which should better preserve long-term function. That would be a boon for any patient, but has a special significance for an otherwise healthy young athlete.

Most important, of course, was the successful eradication of the cancer. After his surgery, Tai received 24 rounds of chemotherapy. He credits his training as a triathlete for giving him a high tolerance for pain and discomfort—and the focus he needed to keep giving his all during physical therapy. With that completed, he’s feeling less like a cancer patient and more like any other young adult.

Young man in front of colorful climbing wall
Back in fine form, Tai is ready for whatever challenge comes next.

Now 18, Tai is planning to study mechanical engineering at New York City College of Technology starting this fall. Though he’s no longer participating in triathlons, he’s already back to an active lifestyle that includes rock climbing and swimming, a full-throttle approach that at the time of his diagnosis he might have thought was over. “Sometimes,” says Tai, “it’s about being hungry for life. I have been very, very lucky in life.”