Half of my pelvis is gone, but I’m a happy, normal 18-year-old
Discovering I had bone cancer when I was only 12 forced me to mature very quickly. Doctors found a growth about the size of an orange in my pelvis, after a pain in my left leg got really bad over the summer of 2014.
The diagnosis was osteosarcoma. Surgery is usually a part of the treatment. But because the tumor was so close to some vital nerves, almost every doctor my parents consulted recommended amputation. If I’d stayed in Mexico for my treatment, that’s probably what would’ve happened. And I’d have had to live the rest of my life without a leg, using a walker or crutches.
Fortunately, my parents took my wishes into consideration. So, I ended up at MD Anderson. There, Dr. Valerae Lewis offered us an alternative: a radical surgery called an internal hemipelvectomy. Half of my pelvic bone would be removed, along with the tumor. But I’d get to keep my leg.
A hemipelvectomy is a long, complicated surgery, so it was a tough option to consider. If I had it, there was a chance I might never walk again. But it also had the most potential to give me a normal life. I’m glad now that I decided to do it.
Recovering from a hemipelvectomy
Dr. Lewis performed the hemipelvectomy on Nov. 3, 2014. And I’m not going to lie: the recovery process was hard. I had to use a walker for six months, crutches for another six, one crutch for another three, and a cane for 15 more months after that.
It was a long and tedious process, with a lot of physical therapy and no jumping ahead. I also had chemotherapy, both before and after the surgery. But thanks to Dr. Lewis, I’ve been cancer-free for almost six years now. And though I still get tired after walking long distances, I feel like that was a small price to pay.
My recovery: still a work in progress
Once recurrence was not as much of a concern, Dr. Lewis suggested another surgery. My left leg was considerably shorter than my right leg without a pelvic bone to anchor it. So, in July 2019, Dr. Lewis implanted an expandable metal rod in my left femur that allowed me to gradually lengthen it from the outside using magnets.
Three times a day for 40 days, I held magnets up next to my leg for a couple of minutes, until they’d extended the rods by 1 millimeter. The bone regenerated itself after each adjustment, and now my legs are an even length. This summer, I had the rod removed.
Over the next couple of years, I’ll have some additional procedures, too. I had a pretty big scar on my left hip cleaned up and a hernia repaired with plastic surgery at the same time I had the rod removed. At some point, I’ll probably get another mesh implant installed to better hold everything in place and make the left side of my torso look more symmetrical, too.
Sometimes, it feels like recovery is taking forever, but I know it’ll be worth it in the end. I still need a cane to walk long distances, but my gait is much better now and I no longer have to wear a lift in my shoe.
Life after a hemipelvectomy
Today, I am very focused on my future and preoccupied with the things I want to do to achieve my goals.
I’ll be starting university in the fall, where I’ll be studying biological sciences, with a concentration on cancer and molecular engineering. I fell in love with the field after being so involved in the decision-making process for my cancer treatment, and realized that’s what I wanted to do.
Right now, I’m leaning more towards research than patient care, because I’m so interested in DNA and mutations in a gene called p53 that can lead to a couple of different types of cancer — including the one I developed. I’m also hoping to do some research on tumor micro-environments, and explore the connections between cancer and virology.
Fertility: another hurdle to cross
Fertility is another issue I’ll eventually have to deal with. I’d already begun menstruating before I started treatment. But my parents knew that chemotherapy could damage my ovaries, so they wanted me to consider freezing some eggs.
I wasn’t sure how I felt about having children yet, because I was only 12 myself at the time. I just knew I didn’t like the idea of having my eggs in a freezer somewhere. I kind of argued with my parents about it, because I didn’t want to do something I wasn’t completely comfortable with. In the end, they respected my feelings, so we never really pursued it.
Instead, I got Lupron injections to temporarily shut down my ovaries during treatment. My period returned about a year later, but I haven’t really followed up with my gynecologist to see if everything’s functioning correctly. That’s OK, though, because right now, I don’t really see myself ever having kids. Maybe I’ll change my mind later on. But I don’t have to decide yet, because I’m only 18. I’m still figuring out what I want to do with my life.
Living a life with no regrets
Choosing a hemipelvectomy was a life-altering decision, but I have absolutely no regrets. I can’t go jogging or walk really long distances, but I’m still living a pretty normal life and experiencing most of the things a person my age would. I get along with kids my own age and can relate to their struggles. So, cancer didn’t take that away from me.
Obviously, I still have some physical impediments, but I don’t feel like they hold me back much. And I don’t feel sorry about anything that’s happened to me. It all made me who I am today. My teachers tell me I’m very determined and hard-working. I might not have developed those qualities if not for my cancer experience.
I had a lot of hard times in 2014, but I grew very close to my parents and doctors, so I don’t consider it a bad year. I was a happy kid. I’m happy now. And I’m still here. So, I wouldn’t take any of it back.