Stories of progress, inspiration, and information in overcoming osteosarcoma.

Joey Heredero standing in front of some trees and smiling

14 Years Later, ‘It Never Gets Easier’

Advocacy and remembrance help the Heredero family cope with the loss of their son and brother, Joey, to osteosarcoma.

June is always an emotional rollercoaster for Desiree Keller. While she has a lot to celebrate, it will forever be the month she lost her brother, Joey, to osteosarcoma.

“It is a somber time because June is Joey’s birthday and also the anniversary of his passing,” Desiree says. “But my birthday is in June, too, and so is my husband’s and my son’s. So the whole month — it’s a push and pull of emotions.”

The busyness of the month helps them cope, Desiree says.

“There is so much going on in June that it kind of forces us together and forces us to celebrate,” she says. “My son Jacob was born in June, and I think there must have been a divine plan in that, because it really is a nice distraction.”

Joey’s Osteosarcoma Story

Joey passed away on June 11, 2010, less than a year and a half after being diagnosed with osteosarcoma at 21. Initially, he was told his knee pain was caused by a hematoma, and he spent months taking pain medication and going to physical therapy to no avail.

Joey was in his third year of college studying computer science when he finally received a proper diagnosis for his knee pain. His mother, Linda Heredero, was in disbelief when Joey called to tell her.

“He was crying, and I am like, ‘What is going on?’” she says. “That is when he told me he had osteosarcoma. All I could say was, ‘Get a second opinion.’”

Linda was hoping that the doctor Joey had seen in their hometown of Lake Havasu City, Arizona, was wrong. She urged him to travel to Scottsdale for a second opinion. Unfortunately, that doctor confirmed Joey’s osteosarcoma diagnosis.

Joey’s family decided he would be in the best hands at UCLA Health. His oncologist there, William Tap, MD, recommended the standard course of treatment for osteosarcoma — surgery and chemotherapy. Joey chose to have limb-sparing surgery with a knee replacement over amputation. Then he began chemotherapy treatments in Santa Monica, California.

“Chemo was bad. He got really sick,” Linda says. “And the worst part is that I was not there, because I was working. After a while I was just like, ‘I cannot do this anymore. I cannot listen to how horrible my son is doing while I am at work teaching a classroom full of kids.’” Linda decided to leave her job to care for Joey.

Losing His Leg

After healing from surgery, completing physical therapy, and finishing chemo, Joey started resettling into his life with school, work, and friends. He was in remission for about four months when Linda noticed him limping again.

After a call to Dr. Tap, the two got in the car and drove to UCLA Health as ordered.

“The surgeon came in and said he wanted an X-ray and a bone scan and a biopsy immediately,” Linda says. “When he was done, Joey — he was always such a jokester — looked at him and said, ‘Are you going to say hello to me now?’ That broke [the surgeon]. This serious guy — chief of staff — just laughed. He loved Joey from then on.”

After the smattering of tests, Joey got the bad news: His cancer was back, and he needed an above-the-knee amputation, which he had in March 2010.

“The oncologist told us from the get-go, there is no cure for osteosarcoma, but I never in a million years expected my son to succumb to this disease.” — Linda Heredero

But amputation was not enough to keep Joey’s osteosarcoma from spreading to his lungs. And although Joey had been enrolled in a clinical trial for a new drug, the trial was delayed and by the time it started back up again, Joey was too sick to participate.

“The oncologist told us from the get-go that there is no cure for osteosarcoma,” Linda says. “But I never in a million years expected my son to succumb to this disease.”

Staying Connected to Joey

Fourteen years later, Linda and Desiree still tear up when recounting Joey’s story.

“It never gets easier,” Linda says. “It is still very, very difficult.”

When Desiree’s employer, Allstate, held a giving campaign, committing to match employee charitable giving dollar for dollar, Desiree jumped at the chance to support osteosarcoma research. She recalls seeing the Osteosarcoma Institute on the list of choices.

“There is a lot of funding for other cancers, and rightfully so,” Desiree says. “But I just feel like there is not enough attention and not enough research in bone cancer.”

Desiree has been donating to OSI out of her paychecks for the past two years. Recently, OSI Development Manager Vanessa Peterson invited Desiree to serve on the Board of Ambassadors, a group of osteosarcoma families that work together to spread awareness of the disease and raise funds for research. Desiree immediately knew she wanted to join.

“It has long been my personal mission to find a group that has that level of commitment, that mission, that drive to curing this disease. I am really happy for the opportunity to be a part of it,” Desiree says. “It is a really great way for me to stay connected with Joey.”

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