City of Charleston police chief tells love story of sarcoma cancer journey

July 13, 2022
a woman walks alongside a man in business attire using walking supports
Luther Reynolds and his wife, Caroline, at an appointment at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center. Reynolds draws strength from the community, and he in turn inspires those around him. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Editor's Note: Chief of Police Luther Reynolds passed away May 22, 2023. We at MUSC Hollings Cancer Center extend our sympathies to his family, friends, police family, and all those who drew inspiration from his story. 

Tears come to the eyes of Luther Reynolds more easily now. But he’s OK with that. Cancer, the kind of battle he has had to fight, will do that to a person. The tears are a badge of honor for the City of Charleston chief of police, who is known for his grit and determination as well as his kind heart and generosity.

He’s been through the wringer since his diagnosis with sarcoma in October of last year. Sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in bone or in the soft tissues of the body. To make matters worse, Reynolds has a rare form called a triton tumor, maybe one of 100 such tumors ever reported. It’s a cancer that would end up taking his right leg, part of his hip and sacrum.

It’s a hot day, and Reynolds, outfitted with a state-of-the-art prosthetic leg, has driven himself in his modified vehicle to MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and navigated getting to the third floor. His days of pushing himself hard in rehab are evident as he maneuvers much better down the hallway than he was able to do just a month ago.

Reynolds is here to film a Hollings Cross Talk interview that will air this month for Sarcoma Awareness Month. Since his diagnosis, the 55-year-old police chief takes time to do advocacy work for other cancer survivors despite his already packed schedule, leading the city’s more than 450-member police force during a turbulent time in the nation’s history.

a man uses walking supports shakes the hand of a staff member 
Chief Reynolds greets Dawn Morgan, a patient access representative, at Hollings. Photo by Clif Rhodes

He’s here to be vulnerable and tell others it’s tough — but they aren’t alone in the struggle. He’s here to say pay close attention to pain that doesn’t go away, such as the back pain he had that finally led him to a doctor and a diagnosis he never expected. He’s here to say there needs to be more funding for cancer research, including for rare forms, and how essential it is for survivors to reach out for the support they need.

It’s not just lip service for the chief, who always has prided himself on an active lifestyle that included running marathons and even ultramarathons. He now looks down at his prosthetic to talk of the phantom pains he has. The former college rugby player has reason to be angry and resentful, but that is not what comes out. Instead, he talks of drawing from his faith and what this season of life is teaching him. He talks about the love story that’s playing out in his life because of this journey.

There have been the hundreds of cards and calls, standing ovations, chalk drawings on the sidewalk outside his home to welcome him home from his surgery, prayers from family and friends and his men’s church group at Seacoast and even well wishes from strangers. He’s humbled and strengthened, overwhelmed by the blessings and feels compelled to give back.

“I really believe that God has more work for me to do. Now, instead of two legs, I just got to figure out how to do it with one.”

Inspirational icon

It’s 8:30 a.m. on Daniel Island, and Reynolds is breaking a sweat on the treadmill during his rehabilitation session. Sgt. Elizabeth Wolfsen, public information officer with the City of Charleston Police Department, jokes with him as he edges up to 3.2 miles per hour, perfecting a kicking motion with his hip to propel his prosthetic leg forward.

“I thought you were going to break out in a run,” she said, smiling. “You were cruising along.”

Next Reynolds tackles the staircase with his therapist, going up and down the steps. This is followed by standing one-legged weight work and then, just when most people would be collapsing, Reynolds begins doing a series of burpees.

“I have a hard enough time with two legs doing that,” jokes Wolfsen, who has been amazed to watch the steel determination in the chief’s commitment to one day be able to walk without supports. It’s a grit that has gotten him through other tough times, including losing his mother to cancer when he was just 13.

Reynolds credits his recovery in part to his amazing team of doctors. This includes Hollings sarcoma expert and orthopedist Lee Leddy, M.D. The surgical oncologist said that sarcomas in adult patients are incredibly uncommon, as the majority of bone sarcomas occur in children. And it’s a small group of orthopedic surgeons who deal with this cancer. “The kinds of tissues that give rise to those kinds of sarcomas are very, very rare. They're 1% of all adult cancers.”

a doctor looks at a large screen in a hallway 
Lee Leddy, M.D., said the sarcoma that Chief Luther Reynolds had comprises only 1% of adult cancers. Photo by Son Nguyen

Since his case involved not only his leg and pelvis, but also a portion of his sacrum, Leddy and Reynolds defined a treatment plan that would involve multiple specialists across two cancer centers: Colleague Peter Rose, M.D., at the Mayo Clinic would do his hemipelvectomy surgery, and Hollings oncologist Daniel Reuben, M.D., would oversee his chemotherapy treatments.

Early on during one of Reynold’s appointments, Leddy pulled out paper on the exam table and began sketching what would have to be done. Known for his “picture drawings” that he calls abstract art, Leddy said he does the drawings for two reasons. It helps patients to understand more fully what needs to be done, and it slows him down as he explains.

“Dealing with these situations and patients’ lives is a privilege. I mean, they trust you, and they’re dealing with serious stuff and scary stuff. And, we’re having these real conversations, so it’s important to be able to explain things in a way that people understand so they have time to process.”

Just five years ago, there wouldn’t have been as many treatment options to offer, but the science is progressing. Imaging resolution is getting better, enabling surgeons to define the exact anatomic extents of tumors. Surgeons now have robotic-assisted and computer-guided technologies to enable them to get clear margins and preserve critical structures. “We don't really have a good way to rebuild the pelvis, and certainly not the sacrum, but we’re working on things, trying every day to fabricate 3D printed implants and figuring out custom cutting jigs,” said Leddy.

Reynolds was in the hospital for 40 days following his surgery at the Mayo Clinic. He then had to be fitted for a prosthetic. All through the process, he coordinated his care with Leddy and Reuben and remained fiercely dedicated to his rehabilitation. Leddy said his attitude contributes to his amazing outcome so far.

a man in workout gear sits in a rehab room with anatomical pictures of legs on the wall and a prosthetic leg in a running shoe on the table in front of him 
Chief Luther Reynolds has been committed to his physical recovery, determined to eventually walk without using supports. Photo by Clif Rhodes

“It’s so inspiring, and his wife is a saint. She’s been right by his side through all of this. The hard thing is to do exactly what he's doing, which is to keep on pushing forward. It’s hard for him to move, and it takes him a little bit longer, but it’s faster than the time he did it the day before. And he’s just chipping away at his progress in a very inspirational way.”

Leddy said Reynolds has just the right approach, setting small, manageable goals. He has made amazing progress in a short amount of time. Reuben, who meets with Reynolds to monitor the progress of his chemotherapy regimens every six weeks, also has been inspired by Reynolds.

“He’s very motivated. I always noticed him to be really calm, thoughtful and reflective. He listens, and he tries to take everything in completely, and I get the feeling he takes things in pretty well. This probably fits with his job position, but he’s always composed. He’s always optimistic, but he also wants to be realistic. He doesn't want to hide or sort of shrink away from news, whether it’s good or bad. He just wants to hear it straight.”

a couple sits in chairs in an exam room while a doctor perches on a stool and talks to them 
Dr. Daniel Reuben meets with Chief Luther Reynolds and his wife, Caroline. Photo by Clif Rhodes

Patients don’t always realize the impact they have on their care team members, said Leddy. “When you have somebody like Chief Reynolds, who seemingly can take on the world, it’s amazing to see his resilience and optimism. A lot of that comes from his faith, and a lot of that, I think, is just in his DNA. He’s not scared of adversity or hard work. I mean, his physical strength helps him for sure. But his mental strength is what really stands out.”

Leddy said it’s been interesting to see the impact Reynolds has had on the community as well as the doctors and nurses at Hollings. His enthusiasm is infectious, despite a difficult disease and surgical recovery.

“That part, to find the ability to continue to move forward is hard, and with the attitude that he has, it is just really impressive. You know, it helps me get out of bed. When I’m dealing with a patient who is 15, and who is getting a terrible diagnosis, you have to keep pushing forward and keep moving forward. And that’s where he’s just inspirational. You just watch him continue to overcome adversity after adversity.”

Racing the clock

Reynolds may be resilient, but he’s quick to tell people that it hasn’t been easy. One of Reynolds’ worst moments came after his surgery. He had complications, and his pain level shot up to a 10 out of 10, he recalled. “At some point during all of that, a scripture just came to me: ‘This is the day that the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad in it.’ It came out of nowhere, like it was a psalm in my head, and it lifted me up.”

Reynolds said prayer support has helped him to get through it as well as his wife being steadfast by his side. Another grounding factor for him is what he calls the “hidden heroes.” That includes the nurses on the 7th floor of MUSC Health’s Ashley River Tower, who insisted during his chemotherapy treatments that he get up and walk despite the IV pole and only having one leg.

“I call them my guardian angels. The nurses were just so kind, so refreshing and so helpful. They just go way out of their way and go the extra mile,” he said, adding that his appreciation extends to all the members of the team from the cleaning crew to the pharmacists and doctors.

a man in button down shirt and tie sits in a chair with shirt unbuttoned while a nurse with gloves attaches a monitor to his chest 
Roni Manigault, R.N., preps Chief Luther Reynolds at a recent doctor's visit. Photo by Clif Rhodes

“And it’s not just during the day when everybody’s here but at night — overnight. These are my heroes. And I don’t say that lightly because I feel the same way about cops. I’ve been a police officer most of my life. I feel like the men and women that are protecting our communities and serving our communities at night – they really do a great job. Nobody really knows it. Right? That’s OK. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.”

Reynolds knows he’s at the beginning of a long journey, where he’ll need a team of these hidden heroes.

“Cancer’s a tough, tough thing. I mean, I don’t want to gloss over it. Getting chemo is just no fun. That’s probably the nicest way I can put it. When they hook up those bags and they put that stuff in your body, it just doesn’t make you feel well for four days. And I’m a person who’s used to feeling good and most of the time being fit and active. And so, with chemo, phantom pain, having one leg and having all the unknowns associated with cancer, it’s hard.”

Call it a job hazard or his personality, but Reynolds always has had a sense of his own mortality, even before his cancer diagnosis. Now it’s even more so. “It has given me a sense of urgency and how I live my life and how I treat people and how I talk to people and in my faith. Now, that’s even more acute. I don’t know how much time I have left. I may have 30 years left, or I may have three months left. I just don’t know that.”

What he does know is he still can make a difference – in his job and with his friends and family. The father of two said his leadership style is to leave things better than he found it, and he still has plenty of gas left in the tank.

“The one thing that I’ve learned from others who have had cancer and survived and been successful is that you can’t stop. In some ways, it may be easier to just give up. But I believe you have to live with purpose. Live with conviction. Live with a sense of urgency and make a difference,” he said.

“We are all on the clock. And so, what are we doing with the time, and how can we make a difference? How can we help others? All of us, not just me. So, what does that look like for me? I’m still figuring that out.”

Chief Luther Reynolds

Charleston Chief of Police Luther Reynolds is determined to continue serving his community, regardless of losing a leg to cancer.