Osteosarcoma survivor: Life after cancer can be amazing

Although it's been 18 years, I still clearly remember how scared my family was when I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in my right femur at age 18. Looking back, I believe my youth and lack of understanding surrounding cancer kept my own anxiety in check. I’d noticed the bump above my knee but didn’t think much of it at the time. A family friend, who happened to be an orthopaedic surgeon, urged me to get an X-ray. After examining the images, he told my parents to make me an appointment at MD Anderson. He suspected that I had cancer and wanted me to receive the best treatment available.

Not only was I young and supposed to have my whole life ahead of me; I was also in my second trimester of pregnancy with my second child.

Starting osteosarcoma treatment while pregnant

Expecting a baby added a layer of complication to my treatment. I discussed several options with my care team, led by Dr. Robert Benjamin. I decided to wait until my third trimester to begin chemotherapy in order to give my daughter as much time as possible to grow and develop. Thankfully, the waiting period was only a few weeks.

I was scheduled to begin chemotherapy treatment on Sept. 11, 2001. Given the uncertainty and fear that surrounded the country that morning, my treatment was postponed briefly. I did three rounds of the chemotherapy drugs Adriamycin and Cisplatin, then delivered my daughter six weeks early in November 2001. She was perfect and had a full head of hair, which surprised my doctors. Since she was born early, she stayed in the NICU for a few weeks so that she could gain weight. She is now a beautiful 17-year-old and does not appear to have suffered any side effects from my treatment.

Juggling cancer treatment and motherhood

Shortly after delivery and another round of chemotherapy, I had a limb-salvage surgery to remove the tumor in my leg. I had a radical resection of my right distal femur, which was reconstructed with an intercalary allograft using donor bone. My surgeon used a metal plate and a piece of my fibula to reinforce the area.

I had another year of chemotherapy after surgery. I was prescribed a high dosage of Ifosfamide, but, due to complications, I was put on a high dose of methotrexate, then Adriamycin and Dacarbazine.

Having a brand new baby and another young child while going through treatment was a struggle. My parents and sister put their lives on hold to help me through treatment and take care of my kids. They stepped in and did what needed to be done. We were in survival mode.

Any time that I felt good, I wanted to be out and playing with my children. When I felt bad, we would stay in bed and watch movies. Cancer became a part of our family story; my kids didn’t know anything was different. When my kids were small and asked how I got the scar that extends from my hip to my ankle, I told them that I was swimming and a shark got me, but I beat that shark up! I used that metaphor until they were old enough to understand what cancer was.

Following treatment, I feel that I am very in tune with my body and my children’s bodies. I encourage them to always be aware of how they feel and, if something doesn’t feel right, to seek advice or help. It is just one of the ways that my cancer journey has shaped our family.

Using my osteosarcoma experience to serve others

At the time of my diagnosis, I knew in my heart that cancer treatment was something I had to go through to move on with my life. I did not place any limitations on myself after treatment, and that enabled me to surpass my doctor’s expectations for my post-surgery mobility. Almost two decades later, I’m still actively recovering and working on my leg function. I work as a fitness instructor and have dedicated my life to helping others become and stay healthy through exercise. I have also had the opportunity to speak at various MD Anderson functions to share my cancer journey to inspire and give hope. Life after cancer can be amazing!

Many years ago, I made a choice not to let cancer define me but to use it to my advantage. You can either let cancer make you feel defeated or you can use cancer to learn and help others.

After treatment, I found myself wondering, “How can I serve others? Who can I reach out to?” I decided to volunteer with myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s cancer support community for patients, caregivers and survivors. I love talking to other patients who have questions or anxieties that I can help with. I always tell them that the road to recovery is difficult, but the mind is so powerful. So, don’t give up and instead use your fear as fuel.

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