Jenn Andrews treated by Dr. Patt at LCI for sarcoma

News | 3 months ago

Losing a Foot to Save a Life

Within weeks of her amputation, Jenn Andrews becomes a voice of resilience at the Sarcoma Stomp.

Oftentimes, big life stories begin when we’re focused elsewhere. In 2013, Jenn Andrews’ focus was on her first pregnancy and a little self-care, when a pedicure technician felt a small bump on Jenn’s foot. What seemed so trivial that day would become so important later. That bump was a tumor – myxoid sarcoma, a rare and potentially life-threatening form of cancer. Despite an initial attempt at removing the tumor, it eventually came back, and now Jenn faced a daunting choice five years later: She could cure the cancer only by losing her foot.

We don’t think about feet much, but suddenly it was all Jenn thought about. She’s an active 33-year-old wellness coach, mom and fitness buff. Those feet allowed her to exercise with clients, to keep up with her two young kids, to enjoy barre and cycling classes with friends. What would life be without one of her feet? Who would she become? The thought of it spiraled the usually bubbly and outgoing Jenn into another version of herself: quiet, defeated, alienated.

But it wasn’t her feet that allowed Jenn to do those things; it was her spirit. And soon, strangers and friends alike would remind Jenn that she still had plenty of that.

Expertise and Empathy in Care

Amputations, of course, are a matter of last resort. Jenn’s surgeon, Joshua Patt, MD, MPH, at Atrium Health’s Levine Cancer Institute, says that his team considers themselves to be limb preservation specialists. But considering the size and location of Jenn’s tumor ­– which covered the top of her foot – the only way to remove her cancer completely was to amputate her foot. Dr. Patt had met Jenn’s husband, kids and her mom during appointments, he knew about her love of fitness, and he knew the anxiety she had about the surgery. Even so, he believed this was best for her.

“My role was to refocus her,” Dr. Patt said. “In knowing where she was in life, I had to refocus her on what mattered most: that was watching her kids grow up, seeing them graduate from college, and dancing at their weddings.”

Still, Dr. Patt encouraged Jenn to seek additional opinions to feel confident in her treatment. He facilitated appointments with other doctors, and Jenn went to top hospitals in Houston and Knoxville. The results all showed consensus, but one difference emerged.

“I realized what I have here,” Jenn says. “Here, I’m never a number, I’m a person. I’m a mother, a daughter, a wife. They treat me with such respect, and they treat my emotions with such respect, too. I’ve never had to wait; I’ve never been put on hold. It added such a comfort level during a difficult time.”

A team of motivators and experts surrounded her at Levine Cancer Institute. To give Jenn the best recovery possible, Dr. Patt coordinated surgery to include Bryan Loeffler, MD, and Glenn Gaston, MD, two surgeons whose advancements in Targeted Muscle Reinnervation (TMR) have been featured by Dr. Sanjay Gupta on CNN. Jenn would benefit from their groundbreaking achievements in TMR, which can reduce phantom limb pain and decrease the formation of neuromas –  thickened nerves that can cause chronic pain even long after amputations heal.

Jenn also worked with Vishwa Raj, MD, who is not only the chief of cancer rehabilitation at Levine Cancer Institute but was also the chief cheerleader on Jenn’s support team. Dr. Raj convinced Jenn that after the surgery, she’d be able to do all that she enjoyed before it. “In our first one-hour appointment, Dr. Raj took a broken and train-wrecked version of me, and he convinced me that I would absolutely get myself back,” Jenn says.

Also supporting Jenn was physician assistant Glenna Fox, who stayed with Jenn after appointments to offer reassurance and support, and nurse Mackenzie Domske, who brightened Jenn’s spirits at each appointment with a big smile and a new joke.

Despite her regained strength, Jenn feared that she’d fall into a depression after losing her foot. Before she went into surgery, she asked her friends and family to understand that she wouldn’t want to see anyone for a while. But she had a favor to ask of them in the meantime: She made a video asking them to exercise for her on the day of the amputation, to do the thing she wanted to do but couldn’t.

Passing Hope on to Others

Move for Jenn campaignAfter Jenn woke up from surgery, her husband handed her a cell phone. “You have to see this,” he told her.

On her Facebook and Instagram accounts were hundreds of pictures and messages sent from around the world. Her fitness class sent her a picture of the group wearing “I move for Jenn” t-shirts. Bootcamps in Concord and Charlotte sent pictures of their workouts in her honor. People around the country and in Australia and Canada sent pictures of walks and jogs taken for her. And, most precious to Jenn, she had messages from people who said they had barely gotten off their couches for a year who were motivated to go on walks for her. That little video she made for her friends and family had been viewed over 82,000 times.

“I couldn’t believe all these people did this for me. When I thought I’d wake up to a worse version of myself, I woke up back to me. I’m now a stronger, more determined version of myself.”

Within a month, Jenn tried out her first prosthetic foot. And during the Sarcoma Stomp – just seven weeks after her amputation – Jenn was there on the stage as a speaker, teaching the crowd about sarcoma and motivating the runners ahead of their 5K. She and her husband plan to start a foundation that will raise money to help other amputees with the expenses of prosthetic limbs. So many people helped her, Jenn says, that it’s her turn to help more people in return.

And next year, you’ll see Jenn at the Sarcoma Stomp again. But you’ll have to work hard to keep up with her: She’ll be there as a runner.

 

To learn more about the Sarcoma Stomp, please visit The Sarcoma Stomp 5K Run and 3K Walk. If you or someone you love would like to learn more about treating sarcoma, please visit Sarcoma Care at Levine Cancer Institute.