Kennedale teen with multiple myeloma is moving on with his life

KENNEDALE -- Tanner Walker bought a cool, sleek metal cane to use when he starts college in the next six months or so.

But really, he hopes his purchase will be gathering dust in the closet by then. "I can already walk without a cane, but I get kind of sore if I don't use it," he said.

The 18-year-old Kennedale native has been working to get his life back on track since a broken leg in June 2009 revealed a type of cancer that almost never strikes young people.

The jolting diagnosis led to stem-cell transplants and aggressive chemotherapy at an Arkansas medical center, ongoing maintenance chemo treatments in Fort Worth, a possible surgery to repair the slow-healing fracture in January and a $400,000 pile of medical bills that his insurance company won't pay.

All in all, not so bad.

"I'm in remission," Walker said. "That's what I see as the big deal."

A minor bump

His troubles started innocuously enough. While washing his dad's pickup, he bumped his shin on a trailer hitch and didn't think anything of it until a large bump appeared several days later.

Initially baffled, his doctors eventually diagnosed multiple myeloma, a bone-marrow cancer rarely found in people under age 50. Scans showed more than 100 lesions.

"It was like the cancer was coming out of my bones -- it was pretty scary," said Walker, now grateful for his careless encounter with the trailer hitch. "They said that if I didn't break my leg it would have been a lot more serious than it already was. I was at the beginning of stage four, and within another few months it would have spread to my organs.

"So I thank God that I broke my leg."

His treatment at the Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy, part of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock, appears to have worked.

His mother, Angela Walker, said she had little hope for him after the initial diagnosis. Survival of 10 to 15 years is common for adults given standard treatment at the institute. "When we first found out about this, they said he had about two years. Now they assure us he will live to be quite old," she said.

Medical costs

Finances are the second front in Tanner Walker's cancer battle. His insurance company declined to pay for one stem-cell transplant and most of the chemo, calling the treatment experimental and beyond the standard of care for treating myeloma.

The myeloma center's staff took issue with the coverage decision. "He was 17, and there's no one who has a standard on how to treat a child," said Bonnie Jenkins, a nurse and program coordinator for the institute. "We've been here 21 years at this institute. We've seen five kids under 18 [with myeloma] in our history."

A state law enacted a year ago gives patients new appeal avenues for denial of coverage for treatment that insurance companies deem experimental, said John Greeley, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance. However, the Walkers' claims were rejected before the law took effect, so it can't help them. But they said their bills have stopped mounting since the state's Medicaid program started covering Tanner Walker in June.

Battling back

Walker has coped with other setbacks as well.

At Christmas time 2009, just after going into remission, he and his mom -- his parents are divorced -- arrived home from Arkansas to find their home ransacked by burglars. A few months later, another intruder stole his video game console.

Also, he's lost touch with most of his school friends, partly because of the cancer routines but also because he started a home-school program at the end of his junior year to graduate early.

Lately, his thoughts have focused on a career -- video game design -- and he has started visiting some area colleges.

Although he loves his virtual battles with video villains and opted for a somewhat virtual senior year of high school, Walker is ready for a brick-and-mortar college. "Going there made me feel excited about getting back into school because I'll get to see other people again," he said. "I'm excited just to be doing something again."

Now, he said, he's ready for the next phase of his life, and a counselor he sees on his visits to Cook Children's Medical Center in Fort Worth is helping "get stuff off my chest."

"Sometimes all this makes me feel sad, but I try not to let it get me down," he said. "I noticed that life goes fast, but I still have a lot of time."