No shoulder, no problem: Liposarcoma survivor adjusts to life after amputation
Kellie Bramlet Blackburn
Liposcarcoma survivor Tom Gattle has never let his amputated shoulder stop him from doing the things he loves. He goes fly fishing with a special rod. He enjoys bike rides with his friends using an recumbent bicycle. He hunts with a lightweight rifle. And he rides a horse with slightly less than perfect balance, he says.
These adjustments haven’t always been easy, but for Tom, they’ve made it easier to give up his arm for life without liposarcoma, a type of soft tissue sarcoma.
“I had made up my mind that I was going to fight cancer at every turn,” he says. “It wasn’t ever a question for me.”
But even with his determined attitude, his cancer treatment and recovery weren’t easy.
Recognizing liposarcoma symptoms
Tom wasn’t sure what was causing the numbness in his left hand around 2008. He visited a series of doctors near his Louisiana hometown, Lake Providence. Eventually, doctors found a mass wrapped around the brachial plexus in his left shoulder that resulted in numbness and the loss of use of his left hand.
For years, Tom’s care team monitored the mass. But when it began to grow in 2017, he traveled across the country to see a specialist, who diagnosed him with liposarcoma. He underwent a round of chemotherapy, but after a month, the tumor wasn’t responding. At that point, Tom wanted to receive treatment closer to home, so he came to MD Anderson based on his doctor’s recommendation.
Coming to MD Anderson for liposarcoma treatment
At MD Anderson, Tom saw sarcoma specialist Robert Benjamin, M.D., who re-examined him. Benjamin confirmed Tom’s diagnosis, but suggested that a cancer this aggressive would require more action. He recommended seven months of chemotherapy and five weeks of radiation therapy, followed by a forequarter amputation (amputation of the left side of the collar-bone and shoulder). After the surgery, he’d need three more months of chemotherapy.
“I thought, if that’s what I need to do rid myself of the evil beast, then let’s do it,” Tom says. “I was very lucky to have found Dr. Benjamin.”
From August 2017 to January 2018, Tom underwent weekly rounds of Doxorubicin, a chemotherapy drug, followed by five weeks of radiation. All the while, his wife Edna, their children and friends supported him, easing his path to recovery.
After a short break from treatment, Tom underwent surgery on May 16, 2018. During the 10-hour procedure, orthopedic surgeon Bryan Moon, M.D., removed Tom’s left shoulder and the area surrounding it. Then, plastic surgeon Margaret Roubaud, M.D., reconstructed the area.
Tom stayed in the hospital for six days following the surgery. Each day, he met with physical and occupational therapists, and each day, he gained more strength.
“You just put one foot forward after the other and every day moves the process along a little quicker,” Tom says.
Life after shoulder amputation
With the surgery behind him, Tom finished up another three months of chemotherapy. He continues to travel to MD Anderson every three months for follow-up appointments. In between appointments, he splits his time between working part-time (he’s semi-retired) and enjoying his favorite hobbies with friends and family in Louisiana and Northern Michigan, where he lives part of the year. Dr. Moon even joined Tom on a hunting trip this past spring.
“You can’t grow an arm back, but you can cope and you can find a good quality of life after cancer,” he says. “I don’t know if my cancer will come back one day, but in the meantime, I’m going to make sure I have a heck of a time.”