TODAY   |  November 21, 2012

Girl, 9, ready to ‘play outside’ after cancer surgery

Four months after being diagnosed with a malignant tumor in her leg, Paishence Joy Watkins, 9, underwent surgery at St. Jude Children’s research hospital. Now able to walk again for the first time since April, Watkins tells TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager she can’t wait to be “riding my bike again.”

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>> good morning. st jude 's gave us a rare look at a young cancer patient and her family with a very uncertain outcome. it's august 10th and patient joy watkins, who is 9, is arriving for surgery at st . jude children's research hospital. her mom, nanette , tries to remain positive. four months earlier she found out that her only child has osteosarcoma, a malignant bone tumor in her leg.

>> i heard them but i couldn't feel what they were saying. i became numb.

>> reporter: patients have already been treated with chemotherapy. doctors say surgery is also necessary.

>> we knew this patient was going to require a surgery where we take the cancer out and reconstruct her hip joint .

>> i say fess f it's in there, get it out.

>> reporter: with anxiety in the air, her family sends her off to the o.r. hoping for the very best. nanette fears the unknown, including the possibility of her daughter losing her leg.

>> i'm scared to death. what if they cut her and it spreads in her body, you know? what if something goes wrong and crack the bone and can't use it.

>> before she became ill, she was a precocious girl. tell me what she was like growing up.

>> she likes to play in the dirt and jump on the bed, you know.

>> reporter: as active as she was, her mom became concerned when she constantly complained about pains in her leg.

>> at night, mom, my leg is hurting. the first couple of times i took her to the hospital, they told me that she was having growing pains .

>> reporter: after noticing severe weakness in her right leg, nanette insisted on further testing.

>> they said there is something wrong. the patient has a mass in her right leg and we want to send her over to st . jude hospital.

>> reporter: results from st . jude revealed bad news. do you remember the moment when the doctor said patience has cancer.

>> they came in the room and said we want to take her out for a movement right then i knew they didn't have good news and i felt like i held my breath.

>> reporter: for a mom that must be really hard to hear.

>> it was really hard, and it took me a long time to exhale.

>> reporter: prognosis for children with osteosarcoma is far better today than in year's past.

>> 25 years ago most of these kids would get an amputation and started developing techniques to save the leg. at st . jude 's we pioneered the ability to put a prosthetics would grow as other leg grew.

>> reporter: a scan of patient's leg shows the tumor before surgery. all this white area is the cancer, and at st . jude 's our survival rate is 75%.

>> reporter: it's a very serious cancer.

>> very severe.

>> reporter: six hours after surgery began patience was reunited with her family.

>> i cried like a baby. the leg is okay and the surgery went well.

>> reporter: a few weeks later with her mom looking on patience puts pressure on her leg for months.

>> like a newborn baby walking again.

>> hasn't walked since april.

>> reporter: you're still pretty little. when you heard you had bone cancer , what went through your mind? did you understand what it was?

>> i understand it was an illness and my heart was really broken.

>> reporter: surgery was the scare rest part of all.

>> i was wondering if they were going to cut my leg off or what was going to happen, i was really scared, but when i saw that my leg was still there, it was like a relief.

>> reporter: as her body heals, patience is exercise, well, patience.

>> now i can actually stand up and put pressure on my foot.

>> reporter: what are the things you look forward to doing once you're done with treatment?

>> hmm, playing outside with my friends again, climbing trees and riding my bike again.

>> so proud of you.

>> reporter: and patience's mother nanette is a single mom and was initially very worried about cost. she was relieved and thankful to learn that money wasn't an issue at st . jude 's so that really is one of the amazing things that your dad did.

>> marlo thomas is here, the international outreach director. marlo, just an amazing story. is patience going to need any more surgeries?

>> what's amazing about this limb salvaging treatment that we've come up with, we've pioneered it. at many hospitals she would still lose her leg but we cut out the part that has the cancer and put in a titanium rod, and then we remotely, every month or so, we measure her other leg and it grows like half an inch and we remotely expand the titanium rod so she won't have any invasive surgeries until maybe she's 22 and fully grown and then we'll put in a permanent rod but that's amazing that in the old days, even when we began, we would have had to go in and do other surgeries to expand that look.

>> looks bionic, amazing.

>> only a minute and a half procedure.

>> that's terrific. marlo,jenna, thanks so