Shanna Decker knows what it’s like to be young and afraid, facing cancer, and in need of answers. She was there 16 years ago, when, at age 7, she was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer called osteosarcoma. “All I knew about cancer was that people died of cancer, basically,” Shanna tells the Mayo Clinic News Network. “So when they said, ‘cancer,’ even though I was 7, I knew this is a bad deal.” Her big question: “Will I survive?”
The standard treatment for a case like Shanna’s called for chemotherapy and amputation of her left leg above the knee – a tough situation for a 7-year-old. Instead, she had a groundbreaking procedure called rotationplasty. Doctors removed the section of her thigh, or femur bone, with the tumor, as well as the knee and part of the shinbone or tibia. Then, to give her greater mobility with a prosthetic device, they rotated her lower leg and fused it to her femur. Her ankle, then, became her new knee.
Shanna was one of the first children in the country to have this unique surgery, which enabled her to walk, ride a bike, roller blade and even run short distances. She says it was surprisingly easy to adjust to her new normal. “As soon as my leg healed,” she says, “I was walking with a prosthetic and it took me about three seconds to learn how to re-walk.”
Shanna, now 24, has accomplished a lot in the years since her diagnosis and surgery. “I’m sixteen years out of cancer now, which seems crazy,” she says. And because of her experience, today, she’s helping create a brighter tomorrow for other children facing cancer. “Right after my treatment, when I was 8 years old in 1999, my family started mentoring kids with cancer,” she says. Then in 2007, with three other families, they started an organization called Brighter Tomorrows to help “every single family that walks through the journey so they’re not by themselves,” she says.
The physicians who led the team that cared for Shanna – pediatric oncologist Carola Arndt, M.D., and orthopedic surgeon Franklin Sim, M.D. – sound a little like proud parents when asked about her case. “She’s an amazing girl because she went through all this when she was seven, and we’ve seen her grow through her childhood and … remain active,” says Dr. Sim. “And now … she’s passing it on. She’s giving back.” Dr. Arndt adds, “It makes my day … It puts things in perspective and it reminds me this is why we do what we do.”
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