Chondrosarcoma survivor helps other patients find their strength
In early 2009, Hilary McQuiston-Fall was enjoying an active lifestyle full of outdoor activities in San Francisco, California. But when the 26-year-old fell while snowboarding, she realized something wasn’t right.
Doctors initially treated her for a broken tailbone, but months later, she was still dealing with pain and swelling. After a battery of tests, Hilary was diagnosed with chondrosarcoma in her right hip. Over the next six years, she received radiation therapy and went through several limb-salvage surgeries, but the cancer kept returning and spreading.
“They believe it started in my iliac crest and took over my right side. It was growing over my leg, it was involved in my sciatic notch, femoral nerves — just everywhere,” explains Hilary.
In 2015, her local doctor recommended she undergo a hemipelvectomy, a procedure that removes part of a patient’s pelvis and can include amputation of the leg.
Through her research, she discovered MD Anderson’s Orthopaedic Oncology department has experts that specialize in this complex surgery.
Confidence in MD Anderson’s expertise
Hilary made contact with Dr. Justin Bird and spoke over the phone for weeks with his physician assistant, Jillian Chamberlain. Hilary vividly remembers when Dr. Bird called her with his final recommendation: an external hemipelvectomy, which would include amputation of her right leg.
After a few weeks of careful thought and more research, she was ready to commit to the surgery and trust Dr. Bird’s experience and expertise.
“Dr. Bird was very nice and patient with my decision-making. But I said, ‘No, I want to do it. Schedule me as soon as you can,’.”
In March 2016, she underwent the 15-hour surgery led by Dr. Bird and plastic surgeon Dr. David Adelman. The right side of her hip and a portion of her right sacrum were removed. Parts of her lower spine were also shaved off. Although the surgery was long and intensive, Hilary knew she was in capable hands.
Building strength through physical therapy
Following surgery, Hilary was able to walk with a walker around the ICU floor within days. Working closely with MD Anderson’s physical therapists, she went through several months of intense physical therapy and conditioning.
“I didn’t go through all of that so I could sit home on my couch. I wanted to get back to doing what I enjoyed doing beforehand,” Hilary says.
She was eager to continue the active lifestyle that she loved and worked hard to develop core strength so that she could get back into CrossFit, a favorite activity of hers prior to surgery. With the help of special crutches, she was able to start hiking trails in California six months later.
A light for other patients
Following one of her physical therapy appointments, Hilary was asked if she could offer some advice to a patient who was struggling after surgery.
“They were finding it hard to get motivated to really do physical therapy. And I understand, physical therapy is hard and it hurts, but it’s so worth it,” Hilary says.
Since then, MD Anderson’s care teams have connected several other hemipelvectomy patients with Hilary.
“Hilary selflessly offers support and recommendations from personal experience to patients who have also undergone an external hemipelvectomy. Her positive attitude and influence as a role model have proven to be a light for others during potentially the most difficult time of their life,” says physical therapist Taryn Thomas.
For Hilary, counseling patients on the unique, day-to-day challenges following a hemipelvectomy is now just a way of life. “It’s tough and that’s the way it is — but if you keep a positive attitude, do your physical therapy and make adjustments in your life, there’s always a way to make it work,” she tells patients. “Trying to make it work is frustrating, but it is rewarding at the end. Everything you loved doing before, you’re going to be able to do again.”