Former Wildcat teams up with UK HealthCare to beat rare cancer
When Todd Svoboda felt a bump on the side of his right knee, he assumed it was a tennis injury, something he could clear up with a trip to a sports medicine doctor.
Svoboda, the hulking 6-foot-8-inch former walk-on UK basketball player – who was scarcely used but universally adored by the Big Blue Nation during the 1993 Final Four season – was years removed from his playing days with the Wildcats. Still, he maintained an active lifestyle that included competitive tennis, running and weightlifting. At age 42, Svoboda was in excellent shape and thought little of the bothersome bump on his knee.
“I was hoping it was something like a cyst or just an injury from contact that was just inflamed and didn’t go away,” said Svoboda, now 45.
He scheduled an appointment and had an X-ray at UK Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine. When the results of the X-ray came back, Svoboda’s doctors referred him for more tests. That’s when he realized that the bump on his knee might be a sign of something more severe.
Next, Svoboda and his wife, Franci, were seen by Dr. Patrick O’Donnell, an orthopaedic oncologist at the UK Markey Cancer Center. As the couple listened to O’Donnell’s assessment, they began to understand the seriousness of Todd’s situation.
O’Donnell explained that he was concerned that Todd had a rare for form of cancer called an osteosarcoma, a fast-growing form of the disease that starts in the bones. Because Markey has a multidisciplinary musculoskeletal oncology program, UK was uniquely prepared to treat Todd’s cancer, though it would require an arduous treatment and recovery.
“Dr. O'Donnell emphasized, ‘This is treatable and beatable, but it’s not going to be easy,’” Todd said.
Executing the game plan for treatment
As soon as O’Donnell delivered the diagnosis, Todd was ready to find out what came next. He asked O’Donnell question after question, determined to get as much information as possible about his disease.
“My goal was to give myself the best chance to survive. And Dr. O’Donnell gave me the game plan to be able to do that,” Svoboda said. “It’s very similar to basketball where the coach says, ‘Here’s the game plan to beat this.’ And the team needs to go out and execute it.”
Todd’s team included O’Donnell, orthopaedic oncology nurse Tracy Profitt and the rest of musculoskeletal oncology team at Markey. It also included Franci, who knew right away that her husband was ready to fight.
“[After the diagnosis] I looked over there at Todd,” she recalled, “and he’s got on his game face, this look – not devastated but more like, ‘Give me the facts, I want to know what’s going on.’ That’s how he approaches everything.”
O’Donnell was encouraged by Todd’s attitude and moved forward with a treatment plan that included surgical removal of the cancer and reconstruction of Todd’s femur. Given Todd’s height and the size of his femur – the largest bone in the body – O’Donnell knew the surgery would be unique.
“His bones are so big that we couldn’t do cookie-cutter surgery,” he said. “We had to really think about his case to use all our tricks to get him a leg that he could walk on.”
The procedure took almost six hours, but Todd made it through the surgery, ready to take on the next part of his recovery – a grueling chemotherapy regimen overseen by Dr. John Villano, an oncologist at Markey and another member of Todd’s treatment team.
Strength in numbers
As Todd prepared for chemotherapy, he and Franci prepared their three children – at the time, ages 15, 13 and 4 – for the uphill battle he faced. Just as Todd wanted to know the details about his care, the Svobodas wanted their son and two daughters to know what to expect.
Franci said the kids understood that their father had a serious illness and that his chemotherapy regimen was “some of the toughest you can receive.” At first, the Svobodas left their children with friends and family during Todd’s sometimes weeklong inpatient chemotherapy sessions. But by the end of treatment, the kids were tagging along to the hospital, providing a special energy that helped their dad get through the hardest parts of chemo.
“They would come in the room and love on him and hug on him,” Franci said. “There’s really nothing that gives him more of a boost than seeing his kids.”
Chemotherapy took its toll on Todd’s body. Dehydration, neuropathy, insomnia and extreme bouts of nausea were all side effects of the treatment, and Todd also had to undergo multiple blood and platelet transfusions during the process. As if that wasn’t enough, Todd was also learning how to walk again on his surgically repaired right leg.
The road to recovery tested Todd’s resiliency, but he credits his close-knit family, his faith and the care team at Markey for helping him get through the hardest challenge of his life.
“Having the right doctor and the right staff giving you the right plan that you feel comfortable with is important,” Todd said. “Besides being my doctor, I consider Dr. O’Donnell to be a friend, and I cherish that bond that I built with him and his team.”
'UK has got something special in my heart'
After his cancer diagnosis became public, Todd received phone calls from current UK basketball coach John Calipari and former head coach Rick Pitino. Not surprisingly, the Big Blue Nation also flooded Todd with well-wishes and prayers, which kept him in good spirits.
There was one person, however, who didn’t know about Todd’s connection to the Cats: Dr. O’Donnell. A self-described “sarcoma nerd” and not an avid sports fan, O’Donnell said he had no idea who Todd was when he walked through the door at Markey.
“I can probably name one UK basketball player in all of history, and it’s only because I cared for him at the cancer center, not because I watched UK basketball,” O’Donnell said. “For me, he was just a nice guy.”
Although he can’t play basketball or run anymore, Todd is cancer-free and enjoying new athletic endeavors like swimming and biking. He meets with O’Donnell every few months for surveillance and still treasures his relationship with the staff at Markey. That connection is just one more reason UK means so much to him.
From playing on a Cats team that went to the Final Four, to graduating from UK with a chemical engineering degree, to meeting his wife on campus and to receiving life-saving care at Markey, Todd said UK will forever be a part of his life story.
“UK has invested in my life and I’ve invested in UK,” Todd said. “To me, it’s a partnership, and UK has got something special in my heart.”