How I reinvented myself after an osteosarcoma diagnosis

After losing most of my right leg at age 14 in November 2010 due to osteosarcoma, it was really hard for me to give up gymnastics. It had been my whole life up until then, and I’d been good enough at it that I was on track for a college scholarship.

But when the nagging knee pain I’d had for about a year turned out to be bone cancer instead of a sports injury, my parents and I came to MD Anderson. There, we met with Dr. Valerae Lewis, and started chemotherapy. However, when my tumor grew larger on chemotherapy, we made the decision to amputate my leg. Given the high odds of recurrence with limb salvage, I didn’t really feel like I had a choice. My cancer wasn’t responding to chemotherapy, and radiation wasn’t effective against osteosarcoma.

I tried to go back to gymnastics after I got used to my prosthesis, but I couldn’t perform at nearly the same level, and my heart just wasn’t in it. I tried other sports, too, but nothing gave me that same drive. Then, I went on a ski trip to Utah with MD Anderson Children’s Cancer Hospital in January 2012 and the second I strapped on a snowboard, I knew it was what I wanted to do.

Now, I just think of cancer as something that happened to me once upon a time. And I keep my head up and keep moving forward.

My unexpected title: Mom

It took me about a year after my amputation to be in a prosthetic leg all day. I just didn’t have the same energy I’d had before treatment. I could walk without crutches within a month of the surgery, but it was too exhausting to wear my prosthetic leg all day at first. Now, I have four different prostheses to choose from: one for running, one for the beach, one for snowboarding and one for everyday walking.

I also have a two-year-old daughter, which I didn’t really expect. When I was going through cancer treatment, I never thought about how it might affect my chances of getting pregnant later on. But as I got older, I started becoming curious. Eventually, I saw a fertility specialist and learned that because my eggs had been damaged by chemotherapy, the likelihood of my conceiving a biological child was very low.

That’s probably why I didn’t even realize I was pregnant with Lilah until I was almost five months along. I’d been really tired and pretty grumpy for a few months, but I thought I was just training really hard. And I was in such great shape that I didn’t really have a bump. Once the initial shock wore off, though, I was ecstatic. 

I’ve always wanted to be a mom since I was really little, so even though I’m having kids way younger than I ever anticipated, that’s OK. I also wanted the experience of being pregnant and giving birth, so just knowing I was going to be able to have that after all has been one of the highlights of my life.

A model for other girls

Once I retire from snowboarding, I’ll probably keep trying to develop the sport and go into finance. I want to give my body a break for a little while.

One thing I won’t stop doing is posting photos on social media. For so long, I feel like we’ve seen the same body types in the media. Sometimes I fall into the trap of looking at these women and thinking, “I will never look like that.” I know I’m not the only person who feels that way.

But I’ve since come to realize that we shouldn’t feel less about ourselves just because we don’t look a certain way. I know it’s huge for me to see ordinary women looking confident. And I’d like to think that seeing somebody like me — who doesn’t have a perfect body and who’s missing one leg — would be huge for other girls. Because the truth is, who cares if you’re not perfect? Nobody is. But as long as you love yourself, it doesn’t matter what you look like.

Register to hear Brenna share her story at MD Anderson’s Cancer 180 Young Adult Survivorship Conference on Saturday, June 9.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.