I've been playing volleyball since my third year. I made the Uni team my second year and focused on the college game. My dream came true in 2014, my final year, when I made a point of attending Texas Lutheran University. I was in the middle of my first college tournament when the situation worsened: I felt my knee crack and thought I had pulled my meniscus. But I kept on playing because I was a freshman and felt I had to prove myself.
The pain became worse and worse. I kept it for a while. But when it became almost unbearable, I told my parents. Her reaction was similar to mine. I played college ball. I should just try to absorb it. In hindsight, I was not completely honest about my pain, so I kept playing. To make sure, however, we got an appointment with an orthopedist in San Antonio. At the beginning, an x-ray and MRI scan was performed and found to have a broken femur. The radiologist looked at the scans, felt uncomfortable, and encouraged us to do more tests. I was in a kind of limbo for about three months, testing on a test by test basis but with no proper answers.
When Fear Turned to Reality
When February turned around, my pain shot through the roof. The doctors decided to perform a biopsy at this time. Once those results came back, we finally knew what was going on and it confirmed our worst fear: I had cancer. On February 29, I was specifically diagnosed with Ewing sarcoma, a rare form of the disease that affects the bones or joints. The best plan of action in this scenario was amputation.
I remember that my parents fell to the ground and sobbed uncontrollably after hearing the news for the first time. My brother, who was abroad at the time, called and did the same. I'd be lying if I said I'm not scared myself, but I've always had a positive attitude to life. So I looked at my parents that day and assured them that everything would be alright. In one way or another I would go through this. (Related: Surviving cancer led this woman in search of wellness)
TBH, one of my first thoughts after hearing the news, was that I might not be active or play volleyball – a sport like that had been an important part of my life. But my doctor – Valerae Lewis, an orthopedic surgeon at the MD Anderson Cancer Center at the University of Texas – quickly calmed me down. She came up with the idea of doing a rotational plastic surgery, an operation where the lower part of the leg is turned back and re-attached so that the ankle can function as a knee. This would allow me to play volleyball and maintain a lot of mobility. Needless to say, it was a breeze to push the procedure forward.
Loving My Body Through Everything
Before I underwent surgery, I underwent eight rounds of chemo to shrink the tumor as much as possible. Three months later, the tumor was dead. In July 2016, I had the 14-hour surgery. When I woke up, I knew that my life had changed forever. But knowing that the tumor was out of my body was a miracle to me. This gave me the strength to survive the next six months.
My body changed drastically after my surgery. At first I had to accept that I now had an ankle for one knee and that I had to learn how to walk, how to be active and how to be normal again. But from the moment I saw my new leg, I loved it. Because of my intervention, I had the opportunity to fulfill my dreams and lead the life as I always wanted – and I could not be more thankful for that.
I also had to go through half a year of chemo 18 laps, to be exact, to complete the treatment. During that time, I lost my hair. Fortunately, my parents helped me in the best way: instead of making them a dreaded affair, they transformed them into a celebration. All my college friends came and my dad shaved my head while everyone cheered us on. At the end of the day, losing my hair was just a small price to make sure my body finally became strong and healthy again.
Immediately after the treatment my body was weak, tired and hardly recognizable. To top it off, I immediately started using steroids. I became overweight to overweight, but I tried to maintain a positive attitude. (See also: women turn to the exercise to help them regain their bodies after the cancer)
This was really put to the test when I was fitted with a prosthesis after completing the treatment. In my mind, I thought I would put it on and – damn – everything would turn out the way it was. Needless to say that it did not work that way. It was unbearably painful to put all my weight on both legs so I had to start slowly. The hardest part was strengthening my ankle so he could carry the weight of my body. It took time, but I got the hang of it. In March 2017 (just over a year after my first diagnosis), I finally left. I still have a pretty marked limp, but I just call it "Pimp Walk" and wipe it off.
I know that for many people it can be challenging to love your body through so much change. But it just was not like that for me. With all this, it was so important to be grateful for the skin I was in because it was so good for her. I did not think it was fair to be tough on my body and to react negatively after everything that helped me. And if I ever hoped to get where I wanted to be physically, I knew I had to practice self-love and acknowledge my new beginning.
Before my surgery, I saw Bethany Lumo, a Paralympian Volleyball player in Sports Illustrated and was immediately fascinated. The concept of the sport was the same, but you just played it sitting down. I knew that I could do something. Heck, I knew I would be good at it. When I recovered after the operation, I had one thing in mind: I'm going to become a Paralympian. I did not know how I would do it, but I made it my goal. (See also: I'm an amputee and coach – but I did not enter the gym until I was 36.)
I started training and exercising on my own, slowly building my strength. I raised weights, did yoga, and even tried CrossFit. During that time, I learned that one of the women in Team USA also has Rotary Plastic, so I approached her on Facebook, without really expecting her to hear again. Not only did she answer, she also helped me land a try for the team.
Fast forward today, and I'm part of the American Sitting Volleyball team that recently won second place in the world Paralympics Currently we're training for the Summer Paralympics 2020 in Tokyo. I know that I am lucky that I had the chance to realize my dreams. I had a lot of love and support to keep me going – but I also know that there are many other young adults who can not. That's why I founded Live n Leap, a foundation that helps teenagers and young adults with life-threatening illnesses. The year we were traveling, we distributed five leaps including a trip to Hawaii, two Disney cruises and a custom computer, and we're planning a wedding for another patient.
I hope people through my story realize that tomorrow is not always promised – so you have to change the time you have today. Even if you have physical differences, you can do great things. Every goal is achievable. you just have to fight for it.