Chondrosarcoma survivor returns to hiking after internal hemipelvectomy, physical therapy
Steve Olejniczak had been dealing with pain in his right hip for years before he saw a doctor in late 2019. When he did, doctors said he had arthritis or a hip flexor injury due to his active lifestyle. Steve underwent physical therapy, but the pain wouldn’t go away.
It wasn’t until Steve underwent an MRI with contrast in February 2020 that he got answers. The image showed a golf ball-sized tumor in his pelvis. His primary care doctor thought it could be chondrosarcoma and urged Steve to get an appointment with orthopaedic surgeon Valerae Lewis, M.D., at MD Anderson.
A chondrosarcoma diagnosis and surgery at MD Anderson
Steve had his first appointment with Dr. Lewis the following week. He was amazed at how quickly and efficiently Dr. Lewis got him answers.
“We saw Dr. Lewis on Wednesday, got the biopsy Thursday and had the results later that day or Friday,” Steve says. “I was surprised at how fast she moved on it.”
The biopsy confirmed chondrosarcoma. Dr. Lewis told Steve he would need an internal hemipelvectomy, but he wouldn’t need chemotherapy or radiation therapy.
“I didn’t realize how lucky I was then,” Steve says. “I spent a lot of time at MD Anderson recovering with physical therapy, and I watched people there go through chemo. I didn’t have that, and I’m very blessed.”
Steve was scheduled for surgery to remove the tumor in mid-March, but the COVID-19 pandemic hit. He underwent the six-hour procedure in May, followed by just over a month of recovery in the hospital.
Physical therapy get him back on his feet after surgery
Steve started physical therapy the day after surgery. His physical therapists, Alex Penny and Kolby Sharp, encouraged Steve to try sitting up on the edge of the bed on the first day, progressed him to standing the next day and then to walking the following day. About three weeks in, Steve was able to walk around the nurses’ station at more than double the distance he went when he first started walking after surgery.
“They’re very good about pushing you,” Steve says of Penny and Sharp. “They want to see you get better. My routine was like clockwork. Three times a day, I had physical therapy. They encouraged me to stay ahead of the pain.”
Steve went home in June in a wheelchair. Within a few months, he progressed to using two crutches to one crutch and eventually a cane. Steve uses the cane today and can sometimes walk without it. He continues to do physical therapy at home with exercises Penny recommended to strengthen his core and back. Steve credits these exercises for his ability to work on his ranch – something he wasn’t sure he’d be able to do again after surgery.
Thriving after chondrosarcoma treatment
Steve still has some physical reminders of his surgery. Lewis had to cut out some of his muscle with the tumor. Because of the approach used, Steve’s lateral femoral cutaneous nerve was cut, so Steve doesn’t have feeling in his thigh from the top of his knee to above his hip. And although he can no longer do some of the high-impact activities he enjoyed, like snow skiing or boogie boarding in the ocean, he says none of that ultimately matters.
“You just adapt,” Steve says. “I miss skipping on the waves and riding the waves. I also miss skiing, going down on the snow, turning and swooshing across the snow, going just a little too fast, getting a little nervous. But if that’s what I miss, big whoop. I can still do everything else.”
One of Steve’s post-surgery goals was to hike again. In summer 2022, Steve hiked with his family while visiting his son who was studying abroad in New Zealand. Using a hiking pole, Steve was able to hike about 30 miles without any pain. He says Penny, Sharp and the nurses at MD Anderson have been instrumental in his return to doing the activities he loves.
“I start crying when I think about them,” Steve says. “The physical therapists, the nurses, it’s got to be some sort of God-given calling. They’re awesome.”