Xray of Hallie’s leg after surgery. Photo courtesy of Hallie Auth.

Diagnosis   According to the American Cancer Society, only eight to nine hundred cases of osteosarcoma are diagnosed each year, about half of these cases in children and teens. I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma- bone cancer- in my left tibia, or shin, on March 16, 2017.

To treat my tumor, doctors used a combination of three different drugs: methotrexate, cisplatin, and doxorubicin. Each drug had a different effect on my body and they all made me feel absolutely miserable. They all did separate things to my body that I didn’t quite understand. For example, according to an article on the American Arthritis Foundation website, “It [methotrexate] stops malignant (or cancerous) cells from rapidly multiplying and spreading by blocking their access to folate, a form of vitamin B, which these cells need to survive.” No matter how much I hated the drugs, I had to give them some credit for saving my life. I may have finished chemotherapy in early 2018, but my body still hasn’t healed and it won’t for at least another year. I am done with the worst of it thanks to the people and animals that helped me persevere and kick cancer’s butt.

Only two percent of childhood cancers are osteosarcoma, meaning that my condition was rare, according to the American Cancer Society. Some of the side effects from the treatment were huge blisters on my ankles and I was extremely tired all the time. The toughest effects of the treatments were often short-lived and I found that the worst side effects came with my surgery. I had limb salvage surgery in which my doctor had to remove my entire knee and eight inches of my tibia. After my surgery, I had to keep my knee straight for three months in a cumbersome brace. Once I was out of the brace I began physical therapy to bend my knee again and gain strength. To me that is the worst side effect because even though I work hard at physical therapy, I still don’t seem to be making much progress. However, I was very lucky to have several different kinds of therapy that helped me overcome most of the problems I have faced in the past year.

Family Therapy   I am very close to my parents, partly because of this experience and partly because my whole family has always been very close. This was one of the most important parts of going through chemo; I had an amazing support system. My mom was very precise and made all my doctor appointments; she had astounding health insurance that allowed me to get all my treatments without paying anything. I also had my dad whose specialty was making jokes; he always made me smile and laugh which helped so much more than he knows. I had the best nurses ever and the best doctors; I also had the best dog. I highly suggest that anyone going through anything similar to this should get a pet of some sort. I got my puppy Snickerdoodle, and I am so thankful for him. He always helped me calm down when I was sad, always was so excited when I got home which I looked forward to the most. My puppy was very important; as were my parents.

One of Hallie’s therapists, her puppy Snickerdoodle. Photo courtesy Hallie Auth.

I interviewed my parents about their feelings then and how things have changed because of the past year. I asked them six questions. The first was how they felt on my last day of chemo. My mom didn’t want to do the interview initially because she didn’t want to talk about it much. She said that she felt euphoric on my last day and that she was relieved. My dad, who was in the hospital with me on my last day said that he felt almost bittersweet. He was uncomfortable because he didn’t know what to do next and it was bittersweet because he obviously didn’t want to be at the hospital in the first place yet we had been so lucky to be there.

Then, I asked my parents about the worst part of watching me recover. “Watching you struggle, because you are too young to have to struggle,” was my mom’s quiet answer. “Watching you limp, sometimes it makes me sad. It still pisses me off,” was my dad’s response. Both of us still feel angry that I even got cancer and that we have to deal with all of this. The doctors and the hospital staff helped my mom cope. I was so lucky to have a super supportive family and I was cared for by one of the best children’s hospitals in the country, Akron Children’s Hospital. My dad jokingly answered the question about coping by saying he turned to drugs, which he didn’t, but it was jokes like that that helped to lighten the mood in and out of the hospital. He doesn’t realize it but I loved having him in the hospital with me because he was so good at making me laugh and making me forget about what I was actually doing. His actual answer was, “The routine helped the most, I don’t think there was any one thing that helped the most. Being able to focus on one thing and I don’t think there was any one thing I did to help.” His humor quite possibly saved me.

“I didn’t pray anymore, probably prayed less…I stopped caring about praying…it was weird,” he said. Most people seem to get closer with their religion and to feel a connection but neither my dad nor I felt that we got any closer. I felt like I drifted further away because I was mad, mad that God had done that to me and I felt abandoned. I felt like he was punishing me for something I did and I spent too much time trying to figure out what I did to deserve cancer.

On another note, Dad’s favorite memory was the time we got to spend together; he enjoyed hanging out with me for hours on end. I would have to agree with that, my dad and I got really close in the hospital, we were always close but now we really have something special. I feel the same with my mom but in a different way I struggle to describe. Both of them are my eternal best friends and I love them so much and I am so thankful for them.

A strange thing was that both of their worst memories didn’t even involve me. Their worst memories involved my older brother Travis, who struggled to digest my illness and acted out selfishly against my parents and caused them way too much agony.

My mom’s best memory is all the kindness that people showed and she is most thankful that I am still alive and that we all made it to Idaho. Her perspective is changed now and she cares less about the little stuff and she told me that to her, fear isn’t real anymore. “I don’t care as much about money, I’m more focused on doing things I really want to do,” she said. “I don’t really give a shit about what people think of me. The only possessions I want are things that help me do the activities I want to do. I have realized how important health is.” And this is how my dad’s perspective has changed: “I don’t know that I am thankful for anything yet I’m obviously thankful that you are healthy and that you have a leg. I am still pissed off that you even had cancer and that we have to deal with it for the next four years. I guess that I’m most thankful that we are here [Idaho].” Life has changed dramatically for all of my family and I think that moving to McCall was one of the best decisions my parents have ever made.

Healing Therapy   Being a teenager and having cancer was tough because none of my friends knew how to react. For the first few months, everyone was super supportive and super helpful; someone organized a meal train for my family, and I got literally hundreds of gifts. I got more coloring books and crayons than I could count. I donated most of the coloring books because I had so many. One of the most frustrating things, however, was that none of my friends knew what to do and I didn’t see them as often and felt lonely and abandoned. Looking back on it now, I don’t know what I expected all my friends to do and I don’t know how I would have acted if one of my friends had cancer. I don’t blame them or hold grudges for them not being there because it’s hard to understand what I was going through unless they went through it themselves. In a way I am glad that no one understood what I was going through because to truly understand they would have to experience it.

An illustration of the rotationplasty surgery Andrew had, turning his ankle into a knee joint.

I had a tumor right below my knee. To get rid of it, I had a combination of chemotherapy and limb salvage surgery. The CureSearch website describes limb salvage as removing the “tumor with minimal complications while maintaining acceptable function, durability, and appearance of the limb.” I had my entire knee and eight inches of my tibia replaced, as well as having rods stuck down my femur and the rest of my tibia for stability.

The surgery I had was as rare as my cancer and I actually met a now-close friend, Andrew, who had the same surgery. I interviewed him over the phone about his own surgery; he had limb salvage surgery on his left leg as well but his leg never healed correctly. They eventually had to amputate his leg and turned his ankle into his knee with a surgery called rotationplasty. With that surgery and a prosthetic, he was able to play football and wrestle in high school. He can do basically any activity he wants.

Sometimes I am jealous about the freedom he has because I will not be able to run or play many sports for the rest of my life. Sports have been a huge part of my life for as long as I remember, and it was really tough to know that I can’t continue lacrosse or running. Despite my surgeon’s wishes I will continue skiing because I have been skiing since I was two and I refuse to give it up.

Psychological Therapy   I also had to deal with the mental aspect of my situation. Getting diagnosed with cancer is life-changing and quite depressing.  I was definitely very stressed because I was worried about whether I was going to die or not. I am a very positive and happy person naturally, but when I got diagnosed I was crushed. I got very lucky though; I initially went into a walk-in clinic because my ankle hurt. I briefly mentioned to the doctor that my knee was a little swollen and hurt a little but when I lifted it up, I thought nothing of it. I got an x-ray on my ankle and my knee and then I was sent for an MRI to look at my knee, not my ankle. Frankly, I didn’t think much of it I just assumed I would be okay. An hour and fifteen minutes later, I was told that I had a tumor below my knee. I didn’t know if it was cancerous or benign yet. Two days later I had a biopsy, where my surgeon removed a piece of my bone to test it. A week later I got the news. I didn’t know how to react; obviously I was sobbing and super upset.

The next couple of weeks were full of doctor visits and sympathy. My mental state was rough; I had convinced myself that I had done something to deserve cancer and I spent weeks asking why? Why me? Why now? I was stuck on crutches and I felt useless.

One night after starting chemo I was taking a bath and washing my hair. When I pulled my hands back I had a clump of hair in my hands. I started screaming and sobbing. I let my hair fall out for two days before I asked my dad to buzz it all off. I’m not going to lie, it was traumatizing, but at the same time it was sort of satisfying. My hair thinned out; it didn’t come out in clumps like I had imagined. That wasn’t even the worst part of losing my hair. Chemo doesn’t just kill the hair on someone’s head; it kills all the hair all over the body. I lost my eyebrows and my eyelashes in the following weeks; that was the worst because then I looked sick and easily identifiable as a cancer patient. It looked creepy. I refused to look in mirrors for weeks.

All of this hurt my mental state so much more than I realized. I started to have scary thoughts that were terrifying; I would be sitting in the bathtub and think, “I could just drown myself right here and be done with it all.” Thoughts like that scared the crap out of me and I told my mom about it, thankfully, because I was afraid that I would act on them. When I had thoughts like that it wasn’t the normal voice inside my head that I heard, it was a sinister deadly voice. It wasn’t me; it was desperation and depression speaking. It was awful.

The hospital where I was treated had a psychologist who trained to deal with kids going through this. Mallory was one of the many people who saved my life. I met with her in the hospital and just spilled everything and sobbed and held nothing back. I am grateful that I spilled everything with her because just talking about it made me feel so much better. I felt comfortable telling people what I was thinking and that honestly saved me. The thoughts never really went away but I was able to control them more because I had help.

According to Margaret Paul, a psychologist of forty years, “People heal their depression when they[g]et the psychotherapy and trauma therapy they need[and learn] to lovingly manage stress.” Mallory provided me with the therapy I needed and helped me control my fears and stress. I was reassured all the time that what I was going through, mentally, was totally normal and that I wasn’t alone. Now I feel capable of controlling my thoughts and can effectively manage stress in a way I never was able to before. I worry much less because I realized what really was important: life and happiness. Yes, grades and friends are important but if someone pursues happiness, everything else will fall into place.

Hallie undergoing physical therapy at the hospital. Photo courtesy Hallie Auth.

Physical Therapy   Ever since my surgery on June 15, 2017, I have been undergoing physical therapy. I still am. It started out as just squeezing my muscles in my left leg, my weak leg. Then it progressed to working on bending my leg. Now it has turned into strength training. After my biopsy I was on crutches for five months even though my doctors told me I would only be on crutches for three weeks. After my surgery, I was put in an immobilizer and couldn’t bend my leg for three months; the doctors had told me I would only be in the immobilizer for six weeks. After not using my left leg for five months I had lost almost all my muscle in that leg. I didn’t notice how skinny it was until I was finally able to start bending it.

Physical therapy was really tough and really painful. Bending my knee was excruciating and to cope with that I was prescribed an opioid, oxycontin. I used it before for mouth sores (a side effect of methotrexate) and after my biopsy. I resisted using it before my surgery because I was afraid that I would become addicted. A pharmacist had to sit down with me and explain how carefully regulated my medicine was and that they weren’t going to let me get addicted. I used it for two weeks regularly after my surgery and then periodically during physical therapy. Oxy really worked for me and it made me feel so much better that it was amazing and scary at the same time. One time when I was at physical therapy, on oxy, I accidentally called Matt, my therapist, Laura. I never lived that one down. I also never realized how constipated opioids made me. When I was taking my midterms, I was so constipated that I was involuntarily peeing myself.

In addition to other support while in Ohio, I had a great physical therapist, Regina. We had a lot of fun together. We basically just joked around. I looked forward to physical therapy because I really liked Regina and I was close with her. (And we had fun together, she was really funny.) When we moved to Idaho I had to find a new physical therapist and I did not like that. I missed Regina and hated going to physical therapy, I’m not sure if I was just sick of physical therapy or if I was so attached to Regina no one else could replace her; it’s most likely a healthy mix. After a long time, physical therapy got really old and I got super sick of it. I still go twice a week and I absolutely dread it, I am so sick of it. I should be done when I can ride a bike and run; my leg bends a lot more and I am getting stronger every day. My goal is to be able to run and ski. I’ll achieve that eventually and maybe I’ll settle into a new normal. For now, though, I am just going to enjoy what I’ve got.

Art Therapy   Something else that helped me immensely was art therapy. A woman named Emily came to my hospital room one day on her regular rounds and she showed me how to use a new medium called alcohol inks. They are like runnier water colors in a little bottle and I loved them. I was able to create several different colorful designs that were absolutely beautiful. Emily and I kept creating art together and I actually looked forward to going in for chemotherapy because that meant I got to make art with Emily. I absolutely loved working with her and we had so much fun together I made tons of colorful tiles.

During my last week of chemo Emily convinced the nurses to let me leave the floor and go down to the art therapy room. Walking to the room was literally like walking into my dream studio. The ceiling was all windows and there were mirrors everywhere and cabinets lining the walls filled to the brims with art supplies and musical supplies. There was even a recording studio and a grand piano. It was a colorful bright room that I fell in love with and can picture vividly. That day I made a painting for all my nurses who had become my second family. I also wrote several poems with Nicky, another therapist from the hospital. The poems were about my time in the hospital and what I was learning about myself.

Both Nicky and Emily were really fun to work with and they helped me write really touching and beautiful poems. I truly think art therapy might have saved my sanity; it gave me something to look forward to when I was going to the hospital for an otherwise sucky thing. I am so thankful for them and everything they did for me. A while ago, Emily called me because she wanted to display my art and poems in a showcase at the hospital. She was even going to try to pry my painting from the nurses on the fifth floor, my floor.

Video Game Therapy   Video game therapy isn’t exactly a legitimate therapy like physical therapy or art therapy but video games helped me a lot. I had so much time on my hands and I didn’t really know what to do with it, so I started playing video games. I had played video games with my brother before I got diagnosed, like Call of Duty, but now I really got into it. I once completed an entire game in less than a week. I would bring my Xbox into the hospital and I even convinced my inpatient physical therapist, Dave, to play with me during his lunch. I basically spent the better half of a year constantly playing video games and eating fast food from Swenson’s and Dairy Queen. My parents encouraged anything that made me happy and those just happened to be some of those things.

Life Lessons   I have learned a lot about myself and about others. I feel mature and wise beyond my years and sometimes it is hard to relate to my friends and the common problems of teenagers, like worrying about what to wear to school or how their hair looks. I worry more about enjoying life and enjoying every minute of every day. Anyone’s life can change in an instant and that’s scary but now I know that I am strong enough to handle anything that life throws my way.

I am happy with my life and I am going to do something amazing with it. I already have survived cancer. Not many seventeen-year-olds can say that. I find it easier to be happier, and I focus on the little things. I am proud of myself and my family and I will never be the same. I am blessed and lucky because so many people had it way worse than me. I got to live. I got a second chance and for that I will be forever thankful.

(Editor’s Note: Hallie wrote her essay last spring. She provided this update on August 28th as she started her senior year in high school: “I reached my goal of biking and I mountain bike as often as I can!” Ride strong, Hallie.)

(Editor’s Note: This is the fourth in a series of student essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School juniors for their Spring 2018 Literary Journalism course. Read previously published essays written by McCall-Donnelly High School students under the Opinion – Student Voices tab.)

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