Leg amputation doesn’t slow cancer survivor’s Paralympic dreams
February 23, 2014
Steamboat Springs — For Brenna Huckaby, the word "cancer" in 2010 was just another six-letter word, something couldn't possibly touch her as a pre-teen.
Huckaby was a gymnast, as serious with her training as she was with anything in her life. She trained all day, every day, she said, but lingering knee pain was getting in the way.
It felt like a pulled muscle, so she just blew it off. Initial X-rays revealed nothing, so she vaulted and tumbled her way through the pain in the gym.
Finally, Huckaby's mom had enough. "You're going to the doctor," she told her daughter, and another X-ray revealed something far more serious than a pulled muscle.
There was a tumor in her right leg, the doctor said, and the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston confirmed the worst.
Osteosarcoma had developed in the leg, a rare bone cancer in teenagers and children that typically is found in the right femur.
"I didn't really know directly what was happening, but I could tell by my mom's face that something bad was going on," Huckaby said. "Whenever I was told I had cancer, I kind of just laughed and was like, 'OK, what do I do now?'"
The obvious answer was treatment, but Huckaby had a choice. After her chemotherapy, she could either do limb-salvage surgery and save her right leg but be nearly immobile for life, or she could amputate it just above the knee.
She admits, as a young girl who was just diagnosed with a potentially fatal disease, losing her leg was the last thing she wanted, so she opted for the limb salvage.
But the chemo wasn't working; in fact, it had the opposite effect. Instead of shrinking, the tumor grew, and the limb salvage was no longer an option, Huckaby said.
So Huckaby woke up Nov. 18, 2010, with 1 1/2 legs. She attacked the situation like she attacked her gymnastics training.
"It wasn't really real until I woke up with it," Huckaby said. "When that happened, I just took it like another competition that I wanted to win."
Snowboarding replaces gymnastics
A month after her amputation surgery, Huckaby got her first prosthetic leg.
A day later, she was walking again without crutches.
But while walking came naturally to the now 18-year-old, gymnastics didn't.
She was set back a long way. All she had worked for — the countless hours and numerous competitions — had been derailed by the surgery. She had to start from scratch.
"It wasn't impossible," Huckaby said. "I'm sure if I kept at it I could be a lot better than I was, but it was just frustrating."
She still was undergoing chemo in the months following her surgery and heard through the MD Anderson halls from nurses and friends about a program called The Sunshine Kids, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing activities and support for children battling back from cancer.
That same year, she signed up for Sunshine Kids — 2011 — Huckaby learned how to snowboard. Her competitive gymnastics career was over, so she set her eyes on the slopes.
After all, ask anyone, she says. She was never the type to just sit around on a couch.
Huckaby and her mom uprooted their Louisiana life less than a year ago and moved to Utah, seeking a mountainous terrain so she could train.
Once her leg was fit into the proper prosthetic for the sport, Huckaby picked up snowboarding in the blink of an eye.
She now trains with Team Utah at the National Ability Center in Park City. Huckaby had enormous aspirations with gymnastics and likewise eyes monumental goals on her board, even with one season of Team Utah training under her belt.
South Korea, 2018, she says without hesitation. That's her goal, the next Winter Paralympics in snowboard cross in PyeongChang.
"I pretty much jumped into snowboarding like I did with gymnastics," Huckaby said. "I fell in love with it. I guess the spark I have for it made me such a better rider."
Steamboat: the only Sunshine Kids ski destination
The Sunshine Kids program takes its members to places all across the country. Huckaby has been on Sunshine trips to Texas and New York.
But Monday marks her first time riding in Steamboat, and Huckaby sports an ear-to-ear smile thinking about hitting the slopes with her new friends.
It's the 10th time the trip has made its way through Steamboat, the only ski destination on tour, trip planner Laura Cusenbary said.
This week, Huckaby and 21 other Sunshine Kids will get one-on-one instruction from ski school experts, tour Steamboat hotspots and compete in Friday’s Winter Games at Bashor at Steamboat Ski Area.
"Really cool friendships are built on these Sunshine Kids trips," Cusenbary said. "But what I love about the Steamboat trip is all the sudden, you don't just get to go tour. You walk away realizing you can ski. Some of these kids have never even seen snow."
Huckaby is looking forward to lending a hand to those picking up the sport that has turned her life around since her surgery. She is three years cancer free but has another two years of routine checkups.
But this week is about the slopes and her board, as well as making new friends who have hurdled the same obstacles she has.
"I am so excited, mostly because I want to show other people that no matter what the world has given you, you can overcome it,” Huckaby said. “I'm a living example that you can.”