The Story of Adrienne

There I lay in my hospital room, 8 hours after surgery, expecting to awake with 2 legs.  I open my eyes to see my wonderful Resident Doctor, Dr. Bittar, looking at me from the end of the bed. “Did they amputate?” I asked. “Yes”, he replied.  I responded, “Oh”, and closed my eyes to sleep until the next day.

Now more than 32 years later, I am alive, a living testimony that there is a wonderful life after cancer, especially a cancer that is supposed to end your young life. That bone tumor found in my knee after sudden pain on a tennis court was expected to, sorry to be blunt, kill me, as I was given 1% chance of survival. But it failed – and I won life’s match.

Back in 1981, living in Atlanta, Georgia, my parents and I knew Dr. James Funk, the Orthopedic Doctor for the Atlanta Falcons football team. One of many more “yet to happen” positive – I’ll say “phenomenal” things occurred. Dr. Funk immediately recognized the “culprit”. Pointing to a lump on my knee, which I hadn’t noticed and a “shadow” on the X-ray, which I also didn’t see, Dr. Funk asked me to come back for tests. He then told my Mom outside the room, “Joyce, I think it’s a malignant tumor.” So on Monday, my Mom and I go to the hospital, and after a bone scan and biopsy, I was, unexpected by me, still there Wednesday night. Mom and Dad returned from a meeting with Dr. Funk, and Mom calmly says, “Adrienne, it’s a tumor”. All I knew, at 14 years old, was that that was bad, very bad. 

Things happened very quickly after that. We chose the best hospital for Osteosarcoma, childhood bone cancer - Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida. While the doctors there said I wouldn’t play tennis again, I decided, firmly, to prove them wrong – and win my match against cancer.  Choosing a new “rod in leg” procedure, I go into surgery the following Monday, only 2 weeks after the first pain in my knee. But, over the weekend before, the cancer spread 6 inches down my leg (better than up - “phenomenal” again). This resulted in the necessary amputation of my right leg, above the knee. But my story gets better – and I promise will bring a smile to your face.

In exceptional physical shape from playing tennis (being ranked in the state of Georgia and predicted to “go pro” in the next few years) I, now an above knee amputee, began physical therapy just 2 days later! Even better, I celebrated my 15th birthday 1 week after the surgery. And with the support of my family, faith, over 150 presents, 2 close friends and a sister flying down from Atlanta, this birthday could not have been better!  Most importantly, my 14 year old peers accepted me without a leg. While that may sound weird, think about the time when you were 14 to 15 years old. Did you know anyone without a leg? So this day was exceptional. But I couldn’t go home yet. With the cancer having spread so quickly and Osteosarcoma metastasizing to the lungs, the doctors insisted I immediately begin radiation therapy to my lungs. So with purple ink all over my chest, a hard, stone-like apparatus blocking my heart, I began this therapy on Monday, my 15th birthday.

When Mom and I returned home to Atlanta, I’ll never forget driving up the driveway and looking at the tennis backboard on the side of our turnaround. After Dad and I hugged for – I lost count of the minutes – he and I looked in each other’s eyes, knowing what we had to do.  We both proceeded outside, and he handed me my tennis racket. I placed both crutches underneath my left arm, dropped a tennis ball down from my left hand, and hit the ball against the backboard. Gotcha, doctors. I’m already starting to prove you wrong; I’ll play tennis again – even on 1 leg!

The next 32 years are filled with, as mentioned before, “phenomenal” things. At the age of 16, I was invited to speak for the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta. The first talk was to the Atlanta Rotary Club, the largest in the Southeast with 300 plus members. On the long, stage-risen table sitting with the club’s President and 2 well-known Atlanta News Anchors, I was introduced as the keynote. With index cards in hand, I rarely looked at them, as I was sharing the story of ME, my positive experience with bone cancer, and amputation just 2 years before. After this 1st talk, I went on to be featured on TV several times (playing tennis with a new prosthesis), on 3 radio stations and in news print - namely the Atlanta Journal Constitution (see Media page). Most wonderfully, I continued speaking so often that I was awarded Speaker of the Year for United Way when I was 17. When I was in college, the rock group Kansas flew me to San Diego and Coca-Cola flew me twice to its worldwide headquarters in Atlanta.

Stepping forward to 2008, I began speaking again to large groups for American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life Celebration in the Beach Cities (Southern California). As the 1st talk focused on my love of life after losing my leg to childhood cancer, the 2nd talk, one year later, was a bit tougher. I had just, in May of 2009, been diagnosed with breast cancer. But wait. It was in stage 0, the earliest stage of breast cancer. AND it occurred entirely due to the radiation therapy to my lungs (breast area), back in 1981. That therapy was definitely one of the reasons I lived and was able to beat bone cancer, against 99% odds. Not a bad trade-off.

Young and in good health, I chose to have a double mastectomy, even though I could have just the one breast removed. But since the radiation had been given to both lungs, both breasts, I acted in a “preventative” manner. Guess what? The pathologist, after removing tissue from both breasts in surgery, discovers cancer in the other breast. Here’s another “phenomenal” occurrence. With the double mastectomy, I was 100% cancer free – again.

I’ll conclude by sharing an event I founded in my 25th year of being “cured” of childhood bone cancer. The annual Adrienne’s Search for Children’s Cancer Cure raises needed funds for kids’ cancer; previous beneficiaries have included Shred Kids Cancer, St. Baldrick’s, the Sunshine Kids and the Ronald McDonald House.

Today, I feel it’s my calling to speak, motivate and inspire you, others, and anyone who may benefit. I’ve been so fortunate and want to give back. We have one life and must enjoy it each day, be prosperous, exceed expectations and overcome obstacles, no matter how hard they may be.