Battling cancer: The strength of Isaac Sprague

Tuesday July 9, 2013


Staff Writer

NORTH BENNINGTON -- At first glance, Isaac Sprague appears to be a typical young adult.

He has a wickedly-cool, laid-back personality and a slightly lopsided grin. He enjoys writing music, playing guitar, and spending time with his friends and family.

Talk to him for a moment, however, and you'll realize he is incredibly unique, radiating a practically tangible, positive energy -- an attribute rarely found amongst his contemporaries.

If you met Isaac on the street, you'd most likely assume him to be perfectly healthy, perfectly normal.

Today, unlike most other 22-year-olds in North Bennington, he is not cooling off from the sweltering heat by taking a swim in nearby Lake Paran, nor is he skateboarding at the park he helped build in town. Today, in the sunroom of his father's house, Isaac is resting.

Isaac spends the majority of his days in this room, writing music, playing guitar, and watching documentaries on his laptop.

If you met Isaac on the street, you would never guess that, at 22 years old, Isaac is battling bone cancer.

- - -

The spring after graduating from Mount Anthony Union High School, Isaac moved to Burlington with friends and began working full-time at a local co-op grocery store.

In June 2012, he began experiencing severe back pain.

"I couldn't sit down for more than a minute," he recalled. "Standing was really the only comfortable position."

Isaac sought treatment at a local clinic three separate times, and was prescribed painkillers for his discomfort, which, he remembers, "didn't even touch the pain."

Finally, his doctor suggested physical therapy, thinking Isaac may have pulled a muscle.

His physical therapist, however, surmised that Isaac may have something on his spine.

Isaac said the next week was "wild."

"I had a hard time walking and I couldn't sleep because my back hurt so bad," he said.

He left work early one night, around 6 p.m., and went straight home to rest. On his way home, he knew that something wasn't right.

"My legs felt weird, like I was walking on clouds," he said. "I didn't have much control over them."

Isaac remembers feeling that his body was "off" in the weeks leading up to this day and had suspected all along that his back pain was more serious than his doctors had originally anticipated.

Isaac awoke later that night unable to feel his legs. He was paralyzed from the chest down.

"I threw myself off my bed and over to my door to tell my roommate I needed to go to the E.R. I knew something was really wrong," he said.

His roommate immediately brought him to Fletcher Allen Hospital in Burlington.

"They saw me pretty fast," said Isaac. "I was super pale. The nurses kept asking me if I was doing drugs," he laughed. "I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? I'm just in a lot of pain.'"

Isaac was put on a stretcher, but lying down was excruciating. Doctors gave him painkillers and began taking X-rays.

"I didn't really know what was happening," he said. "It all happened so fast. The doctor told me I had a tumor the size of a fist in my chest cavity and they rushed me into surgery that night."

The tumor the doctors found proved to be the cause of Isaac's back pain, as it had grown to compress his spinal cord.

After the initial operation, during which time doctors removed most of the tumor from his spine, Isaac spent a month in a rehabilitation center re-learning how to walk.

"I felt pretty lucky," Isaac remembered. "Before I went into surgery they told me I would have a 50/50 chance of walking again."

While Isaac was working hard to recover from this trauma, Fletcher Allen's Oncology team was working equally as hard trying to determine what kind of cancer Isaac actually had.

"They described it as a light blue tumor," he said. "They weren't really sure what it was, so it was being sent all over the place to be tested."

Doctors finally concluded that Isaac had Ewing's sarcoma, the second most predominant bone cancer children contract, and that he would need to begin an aggressive chemotherapy treatment immediately.

"At that point, there was really no other option," he remembered. "I pretty much just put my head down and was like, ‘let's go.'"

It was Sept. 8, 2012; Isaac's twenty-second birthday.

- - -

Following his diagnosis and initial chemo treatments, Isaac again went under the knife, this time to remove the remainder of the tumor in his chest.

The day after his second surgery, Isaac's girlfriend of two years ended their relationship. They haven't spoken since.

A few days later, a nurse accidentally rolled him onto his side, directly on top of one of his incisions, causing him to be in complete agony.

"It was the worse week ever," he remembered.

Every week, one of his parents would drive Isaac from Bennington to Burlington for chemo. Due to his young age and otherwise healthy status, Isaac was given an extremely aggressive dose of drugs, receiving double the amount any breast cancer patient would.

It wasn't long before Isaac realized the toll the chemo was taking on his body. Most noticeably, he found himself drained of all energy.

"I didn't even have the energy to look someone in the eyes," he said, "or have a conversation with someone."

This, Isaac recalls, was one of the more emotionally painful effects of his treatment.

"The hardest part was not being able to communicate," he said. "It came off bad, or I thought it did," he said, "I don't know. I hated making people feel bad," he paused to think. "Or maybe they didn't feel bad But, I felt bad because I didn't want them to think I didn't appreciate them visiting me."

Isaac described the nurses at Fletcher Allen to be "angels," and "compassionate" during his long days in the hospital.

"There was no judgment from them. They understood what I was going through," he said. "I want to go up and thank them, but the sad part is, I don't even remember their names. I hate that."

Isaac also remembers the high doses of morphine he was given to help with pain post-surgery.

"There was a time after the surgery when I was sitting in a chair, so doped up on morphine, the nurses literally had to remind me to breathe," Isaac said, "I would stop breathing and not even realize it. It was so crazy."

The chemo treatments continued for three months.

- - -

As of last month, after multiple emergency room visits, countless fevers, daily blood transfusions, and no energy whatsoever, Isaac opted to end his chemo treatments.

"The chemo made me so sick," Isaac said. "I didn't have control over anything in my body. Everything was painful," he continued. "I remember saying to my family, ‘I feel like I'm going to die and I don't feel like it's because of the cancer at all.' At that point, I realized I couldn't do this anymore, the chemo that is. It just didn't seem like the right choice for me, for my body. There's no dignity in that kind of suffering."

Isaac started expressing his feelings about ending chemo but was torn about whether or not it was the right decision.

"I wasn't very confident in what I was feeling," he said. "I had a lot of questions."

He visited his oncologist with a list of concerns, but was frustrated with the outcome.

"I remember she said, ‘I can't really tell you more than what I've already told you. Whether you stop treatment or not, there is still a 50/50 chance that the cancer will come back. It's really your choice.'"

Isaac received mixed reviews from his friends and family after voicing his thoughts about ending chemo.

"I was having my own moral battles with it, whether or not I should just continue," he said. "The choice was there -- taking a different path and trying to be preventative in a different way or continue feeling sick. Some people understood where I was coming from, others didn't," he continued. "It's a hard concept for people to grasp when your life is in danger."

Isaac continued to feel confused until one day, after finishing his daily dose of chemo, his father came in to sit with him.

"I remember he said, ‘If you choose to stop, I don't blame you. There won't be any bad vibes between us.' He knew how sick I was."

This, for Isaac, was the reassurance he needed and had been craving for weeks. At the same time, however, he felt a sense of power at being able to control his health and his body since his diagnosis.

"The whole time I felt like my real problem was worrying about what other people would think about my decision," Isaac said, "Really, it was me trying to figure it all out in my head. It's my decision, my life, no one else's. It was a good realization."

After making his decision, Isaac began researching alternative cancer treatments online. He confided in his close friends, one of whom suggested he meet with a naturopath based in New Jersey.

Isaac obliged, scheduling an appointment and making the trip with some friends a few days later.

He knew immediately that this doctor could help him heal.

"The nice thing about her was that she was confident in her work," he said. "I went there and everything she said just made sense. I wasn't getting shoulder shrugs from her," he continued. "A lot of times, at the hospital, I felt like I got shoulder shrugs, like they don't know enough. That's fine and all but it's not what a patient wants to hear. She just made me feel like I was on the right path."

The naturopath suggested that, to detox his body from the chemo drugs, Isaac make a complete lifestyle change.

He has since altered his diet, eating foods free of gluten, dairy and animal products and uses only all-natural body care products.

"If going through chemo taught me anything, it was to stop harming my body," Isaac said, "and to start treating it like a temple, not to poison it. It just doesn't make sense."

- - -

Isaac sits in a plush, forest green recliner, his head resting on a powder blue pillow. Beneath his black baseball cap hides a delicate dusting of chestnut peach fuzz. Below his nose and mouth, one can see the beginnings of a mustache and goatee.

Isaac takes time to collect his thoughts, swinging the heel of one red-shoed foot up to rest on the toe of the other, tilting them from side to side. Intermittently, he rubs his slender hands together, every once in a while pausing to clasp them in front of his chest, or take sips from his mug of Yogi tea.

Next to the chair in which Isaac sits are two end tables that shelve multiple plastic bins, overflowing with colorful bottles of vitamins and supplements, and Ziploc bags filled with homeopathic remedies.

He takes these vitamins and supplements every day, some multiple times a day, to aid in the detoxification process.

"I feel confident in the decision I made," Isaac said. "From the time I was diagnosed last September I feel like everything has just been a huge blur. That day my father came in, though, and I decided to take charge of my life, I feel like I woke up, like I have more of a purpose, more of a message to portray."

Isaac plans to continue on this natural path to recovery and use this "reawakening" as a fresh start.

He has hopes of traveling the country, playing and recording his music at a cousin's recording studio in Florida, hopefully alongside his best friend Josh.

"I'm just looking at my life, my situation as a new opportunity to live," Isaac said, "Just hoping for the best and staying positive. What's the point of even living if you don't?"

Contact Elizabeth Conkey at Follow her on Twitter @bethconkey.


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