Leiomyosarcoma survivor hikes the Appalachian Trail
When leiomyosarcoma survivor Gail Walsh told her orthopedic oncologist Patrick Lin, M.D., that she planned to hike the Appalachian Trail, his response was, “Which part?”
“I plan on doing the whole thing,” she told him.
The Florida massage therapist came close – just 600 miles shy of the 2,190-mile trail that stretches from Georgia to Maine. She started the journey in April, but after two weeks of hiking with a back injury in September, she decided to take a break.
Gail hasn’t decided yet whether she’ll continue the hike. But she does know that her motivation to live authentically is the reason she’s made it this far, both on the trail and after her cancer diagnosis.
A leiomyosarcoma diagnosis
In 2008, Gail noticed a small bump on her left thigh. She tried to pop it, but nothing happened. A general surgeon said it appeared to be a sebaceous, or fatty, cyst that was clogged. Over a year, Gail says the bump grew to the size of her thumb pad, so she saw a plastic surgeon who removed the growth.
"This isn’t a sebaceous cyst,” he told Gail after he took it out. Two weeks later, lab results showed Gail had leiomyosarcoma, a rare sarcoma that grows in the smooth muscles like the intestines, stomach, bladder, blood vessels and the uterus but can occur anywhere in the body. Symptoms include lumps under the skin, unintentional weight loss and nausea or vomiting.
The plastic surgeon referred Gail to MD Anderson, citing its team of oncologists who knew exactly how to treat her rare diagnosis.
Gail was stunned by the news, holding in her breath so visibly that her plastic surgeon told her to breathe.
“I was a very healthy individual. I never dreamed of something like this,” Gail says. “As I was walking out of the hospital, I called a friend in Houston and said, ‘I need help. I’m choosing MD Anderson, and I don’t know how long I’ll be in Houston.’ She said, ‘You’ve got a place.’”
Leiomyosarcoma surgery at MD Anderson
In October 2009, Gail made her first visit to MD Anderson, where she met Lin and his care team. She underwent tests before returning a month later for surgery to remove the tumor and part of her quadricep. After surgery, she spent one night in the hospital.
Gail says she felt no pain after the surgery. She wore a brace on her leg for about a week. That made it difficult to get around, but Gail says it was nothing in comparison to what she could have gone through. “I really like what the course of the last 12 years has brought into my life,” Gail says. “I’m thankful the cancer was no worse than what it was, and that I chose to travel to a research institution. I wasn’t happy when I saw that 7-inch scar, but having no chemotherapy or radiation, I’m good with that scar. It hasn’t impacted my strength or mobility.”
Overcoming cancer inspires Appalachian Trail hike
Gail’s mindset shifted after her surgery.
“I kind of questioned, what am I supposed to do with this now?” she says. “I had this voice tell me, ‘You need to teach people how to live.’ I feel like I’ve tried to do as much as I can.”
Within a year, she started riding a motorcycle, taking trips through the Carolinas and Tennessee. In 2015, Gail decided to hang up the motorcycle helmet and try hiking long distances. She has hiked the John Muir Trail, 160 miles of the Pinhoti Trail and over several years hiked 375 miles on the southern portion of the Appalachian Trail.
She returned to the Appalachian Trail April 25, 2021, when she attempted to hike from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Maine, and then Harper's Ferry to the southern end in Georgia. Gail's back injury came about 400 miles after summiting Mount Katahdin in Maine. After staying in South Carolina with a friend she met along the trail, Gail ultimately chose to fly home to Florida, and after some visits to the chiropractor, her condition improved.
Feeling grateful for care at MD Anderson
In early October, Gail relocated to Flagg Mountain in Alabama, the southernmost Appalachian peak, where she took over for another long-distance hiker as caretaker of the mountain. She greets visitors and helps them rent cabins all while being able to hike and spend time with her dog.
Whether she’ll finish the 600 miles left of her thru hike depends on work commitments, time away from her pup and if she wants to brave the cold weather during the winter months. However, she has plans to finish the trail as a section hiker, which means she can take credit for the 375 miles she’s already completed, leaving her with approximately 250 to finish the Appalachian Trail. She’s planning other hikes, as well, including the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile journey from Denver to Durango.
When reflecting on both her cancer diagnosis and her Appalachian Trail journey, Gail says she is grateful.
“I don’t know if I’d be here if it wasn’t for MD Anderson and Dr. Lin,” she says. “I’m just so happy my plastic surgeon told me to go out of town. Anyone I encounter who says they have cancer, I tell them don’t wait until the last minute. Go to MD Anderson and see what they can do.”