Abri Bentley stepped up to the podium to address the crowd at the Velocity Dance Convention, starting, as many speakers do, with a joke. "You're probably wondering what happened to my leg," said the 10-year-old, gesturing to the prosthetic below her left knee. "You know when your parents tell you not to run with scissors?" Abri let the question hang a moment before sharing the real story: a cancer diagnosis when she was just 7, which robbed her of part of her leg — but not her sense of humor. "Humor has been our biggest saving grace," Abri's mom, Nikkole, tells us.
We talked with Abri — she of the Leg Story $10 T-shirt fame — last year, not long after her amputation at Mayo Clinic's Rochester campus. After she was diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, doctors in Arizona initially performed a limb-salvage procedure, removing Abri's cancerous tibia and replacing it with a cadaver arm bone. But the procedure hadn't worked well, and Abri relied on crutches or a wheelchair to get around.
Facing a second limb-salvage procedure or an amputation, she chose amputation, which held the promise of greater mobility and independence. "The amputation gave Abri her life back, her childhood back, and I can't thank them enough," Nikkole says of the "dream team" of Mayo Clinic surgeons who removed her daughter's leg, including Peter Rose, M.D., Anthony Stans, M.D., and Steven Moran, M.D.
In November, Abri celebrated the one-year anniversary of that surgery with a birthday party for "Stumpy," as she calls her lower leg. There was a cake, balloons and an "It's my birthday!" pin for Stumpy to wear to school. And time to reflect on all that Abri had accomplished over that first year. Among the milestones: learning how to walk, run, jump rope, skip and dance with a prosthetic leg. Stumpy also allowed Abri to trick-or-treat on foot for the first time in three years, and to ride a bike again. "She has a running list of things she wants to accomplish," Nikkole tells us. Still on this list: ice skating, tap dancing and hiking with Wendy Timm, her physical therapist at Mayo Clinic. (Abri's ready when you are, Wendy.)
Abri (and Nikkole) have also channeled considerable energy toward helping other children facing cancer. Abri has shared her story at fundraisers and awareness events in Arizona, Las Vegas and Washington, D.C. She and her mother launched Team Abri Foundation to support other families facing childhood cancer. After Abri donated her unneeded left shoes to her "sole" sister (a young cancer patient whose right leg was amputated), Nikkole started a Facebook group, Sole Mates 4 Amputees, where amputees can find their "sole" mates and exchange unneeded shoes. Another Facebook page, Team Abri, provides updates on Abri and other children facing cancer.
"I want people to be aware of childhood cancer, to know it exists," Nikkole tells us. "Never in a million years would I have thought this would happen to one of my kids." But it did, just as it does for 15,000 children in the U.S. each year. So now, Nikkole is raising awareness, fighting for more research funding, and pushing for a cure. And someday, Abri may be the one to help find it. Because another thing on that list of to-dos? Become an oncologist. (We know just the place you could work, Dr. Abri.)
You can learn more about childhood cancer and how to help fight it here. Then, we're not kidding when we say you should leave a comment below before using the social media tools to share this story with others.