Break-Point: Athlete, Amputee, Unstoppable
by Madison Murray
Michelle never imagined she would be sitting across from a doctor hearing them say “you have cancer.”
At 14 years old, the Sevier County native and five-time athlete found her active lifestyle suddenly evaporating.
Michelle first noticed pain in her right leg following a basketball injury. When the pain persisted after treatment, her parents brought her to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital for further evaluation. The initial MRI scan of her knee showed nothing serious, but when the technician decided to run another scan on Michelle’s full leg, what they found saved Michelle’s life.
There, nestled in Michelle’s right hip, was a tumor. A biopsy revealed the tumor to be osteosarcoma, a form of bone cancer that is both rare and aggressive. Michelle was prescribed chemotherapy, and she was admitted to Children’s Hospital’s oncology floor for inpatient treatment.
WINS AND LOSSES
Michelle’s life as she knew it came to a halt. She spent six months without her beloved sports. But her unshakeable attitude helped her stay focused on getting through her treatment. Her nurses even created challenges for the young athlete to encourage her to complete physical therapy.
Unfortunately, the chemotherapy proved to be ineffective against the progression of the cancer. Michelle’s physician mentioned that the best way to remove the cancer would be to remove the leg, otherwise the cancer would continue to spread through her bones and into her blood.
Michelle, right, and her mother, Yolanda
“Michelle agreed immediately,” says Michelle’s mom, Yolanda. “She said, ‘Do it!’”
When faced with losing a limb and the sports she held dear, versus losing her life to cancer, the tenacious teen’s decision was obvious.
“That was the toughest and easiest decision I’ve ever had to make,” says Michelle.
Two weeks after her fifteenth birthday, Michelle woke up from the four-hour surgery to find her leg and cancer gone. That moment began a new journey of recovery and perseverance.
THE COMEBACK KID
Dear Right Leg,
It has been an honor walking beside you for the last 15 years. Yes, it will be weird not having you there so I can rest myself on top of you. All the bruises we got together. I couldn't have played all the amazing sports by myself, I needed your help. Unfortunately, it is time to say goodbye. You will always be the one piece that is missing.
AT AGE 15, MICHELLE HAD TO HAVE HER LEG AMPUTATED FROM THE HIP DOWN. BEFORE SURGERY, THE ATHLETE WROTE A LETTER TO HER RIGHT LEG AS A FINAL ‘GOODBYE’.
Michelle spent months in physical therapy relearning how to stand, balance, and walk. Because the entire leg was taken, Michelle is unable to use a prosthetic. She has a wheelchair, but she prefers to use crutches to walk.
“I like to be eye-level with people,” she says. “I don’t ever want them to look down on me.”
Michelle worked hard to get back to some semblance of her old life, but she kept feeling there was something missing. Most of her early childhood was spent playing basketball, softball and tennis. She also ran track and practiced karate. The teen needed an outlet for her energy and competitive nature.
One day, Michelle’s father stumbled upon wheelchair tennis. He and Michelle spent hours watching videos of the sport. Michelle fell in love almost immediately. The prospect of being able to play any sport again after losing her leg was enough for her to dust off her old rackets and invest in a ‘sportschair’ (that’s a wheelchair that is specially designed for athletes).
Learning to play wheelchair tennis has been anything but easy, but at every obstacle Michelle has relied on her family motto: “Wilsons never quit.” She challenges herself to become the best at her sport, even training with a bi-pedal tennis partner in the off-season.
“She doesn’t want to be as good as other wheelchair tennis players,” Yolanda says. “She wants to be as good as she would be without that chair. That’s the standard she holds herself to.”
Looking back at her journey, Michelle doesn’t regret the decision to remove her leg. While she’ll never play all the sports she used to, she has been cancer-free for almost five years. And she has shattered expectations around her disability along the way.
Michelle’s time at Children’s Hospital and close relationship with the staff – in particular, pediatric psychologist Allison Elledge, Ph.D. – has influenced her desire to work with other cancer survivors and amputees. Michelle plans to pursue a degree in pediatric psychology and return to East Tennessee Children’s Hospital to work alongside Dr. Elledge with children who are going through the same things she went through. She hopes her experience will be something patients will be able to relate to and learn from.
Michelle, right, with Anna Taylor, Child Life Specialist
HEALING MIND & BODY
Figuring out how to become a cancer survivor is no simple feat. Sometimes, there’s more to recovery than regaining physical strength.
As part of Children’s Hospital’s comprehensive care, patients who have endured a traumatic experience, such as a chronic diagnosis or amputation, can be referred to on-staff specialists who help with the emotional and psychological aftermath.
During her time at Children’s Hospital, Michelle was referred to Dr. Alison Elledge, a pediatric psychologist in Children’s Hospital hematology and oncology clinic. Together they formed a close bond that has lasted beyond Michelle’s recovery.
Michelle, right, with Allison Elledge, Ph.D., Children's Hospital pediatric psychologist
“Michelle, like so many of our patients and families, came to realize after finishing treatment that her journey had changed her,” says Dr. Elledge. “[She realized] that there was no going “back” to before, and that – in some ways – being finished with treatment was just as hard as going through treatment.”
Pediatric psychologists can help children sort out the big emotions they may be feeling toward a difficult diagnosis, a tough procedure, or even figuring out ‘what comes next.’ For Michelle, ‘what comes next’ will hopefully be many more wheelchair tennis trophies and a degree in pediatric psychology.
“Michelle is still a little bit of the old fun-loving, quirky and cool, tennis-playing Michelle,” Dr. Elledge observes, “but she now also has a wisdom, a thoughtfulness, and graciousness about her that I know will help her achieve any goal she sets for herself.
Psychological consultations are referral-based. If you would like to learn more, talk to your child’s nurse or physician, or visit www.etch.com/specialties/pediatric-psychology.