Craig woman, Amanda Wooten, prepares for leg amputation
Wooten survived childhood cancer; will have her leg removed to improve quality of life
August 20, 2016
Craig — At 32 years of age, Amanda Wooten of Craig, decided to cut-off her leg.
Wooten survived bone cancer as a child and was one of the first in the nation to receive specialized treatment for osteosarcoma. The support of a metal rod in her femur has allowed her to keep her leg for the past 17 years.
"Years ago the doctors told me this was life over limb. I was lucky. I got to keep both," Wooten said.
Now, after repeated infections and eight surgeries it's time "to get rid of it," Wooten said.
Wooten learned of her cancer when, at age 15, she broke her femur, the largest bone in the human body, during basketball practice.
"Basketball was my dream. It was my life. I was never able to play again," Wooten said.
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In the weeks to come, she would learn that a tumor the size of a cantaloupe caused by the bone cancer had been growing in her leg. Wooten was taken to Presbyterian/St. Luke’s Medical Center in Denver where Dr. Cynthia Kelly, a fellowship-trained, board-certified orthopedic surgeon at Colorado Limb Consultants, and her team were pioneering a new treatment. Wooten was case number 34.
"We see osteosarcoma in the mid- to late teens, early 20s and again in people around 70 to 80 years old," Kelly said. "We have a unique treatment that we deliver at our hospital system. Only two other countries have this treatment and at the time we where the only ones to offer intra-arterial chemotherapy."
According to Kelly, the treatment involves threading a catheter through blood vessels that support the tumor then flooding it with targeted chemotherapy. This both kills the cancer cells and prevents the spread of cancer to other parts of the body. The tumor and bone was surgically removed from Wooten's leg after chemotherapy. A metal rod was attached to her femur to provide support to the weakened limb.
By December of 2000 Wooten was cancer free and had returned to an active life style.
The community came to know Wooten as a survivor, a person who, despite her illness, was full of smiles and always put others first. Yet, there is a darker side to her story.
Weight gain was taking a toll on her self-esteem, the prescription pain killers that she for pain from the treatment became an addiction, and it was only a matter of time before the structure supporting her weakened femur would wear out.
"I was bulimic, I was a size 11 and all my friends were size two. I had some amazing times, I was homecoming attendant, I got married, I had my baby. Then my dad got sick and died from melanoma, I had five staph infections. I had monthly trips to Denver for treatment, each time they had to un-cement the rod, remove the rod, bake the rod to remove the infection and then put it back in," Wooten said.
As Wooten's world was darkening in 2010 and 2011, another young athlete, Brenna Huckaby, learned she too had osteosarcoma and was fighting to save her life.
"I was doing gymnastics. I had knee pain and got x-rays. I was treated in Texas. I didn't handle chemo so my only option was amputation. I can't relate to life with saving my leg or having that option," Huckaby said. "For me, I was OK with it because I wanted it to end. I didn't want to be sick anymore. It was the best way out. At the time I was very happy for it, just get it over with. A year later the reality hit me."
Huckaby had to finish nine more months of chemo to make sure the tumor was gone once her leg had been amputated. The treatment and the process of adapting to a prosthetic limb took a toll. Her hospital, MD Anderson arranged for Huckaby to travel to Steamboat Springs for therapeutic skiing to help with her rehabilitation.
"After you have a major change like losing a leg, life is completely different. Everything requires extra steps, like putting your leg on and exerting so much energy. I felt very empty, and I felt like I couldn't do much. I didn't personally know many people who had lost their leg. Then I went on a ski trip and learned how to snowboard for rehabilitation purposes. Snowboarding was like being on a balance beam," Huckaby said.
And the former competitive gymnast was good at it. She competed to become a member of the U.S. Paralympic team and the best adaptive snowboarder in the world.
As Huckaby adapted to her prosthetic limb and reclaimed her status as an elite athlete, Wooten continued to struggle.
"I was a mess. My marriage failed. My family was broken. Then after the divorce I had financial trouble. It never seemed like there was going to be a light at the end of the tunnel. I could never move on. I was working, had become a CNA at the nursing home and TMH (The Memorial Hospital), but my leg couldn't hold up," Wooten said. "In 2014, I was done, sick of not having family, I felt like I was alone."
The positive girl who had survived cancer swallowed a handful of pills seeking to end her pain forever through suicide.
"She was addicted for so long that I didn't realize how bad it was," Wooten's sister, Alicia Baker, said. "She would often tell me what I wanted to hear to make me feel that everything was OK. Our dad passed away in 2012, and then, followed by her divorce, our family started to crack. Our mother couldn't handle what was going on with Amanda, our brother got more distant when Amanda's drug abuse became evident."
When she opened her eyes in the hospital after her suicide attempt the first person Wooten recalls speaking with was the volunteer tasked with monitoring her to prevent another suicide attempt.
"I am Amanda Wooten. The girl who tried to kill herself is not me. I am sorry you have to be here away from your family watching me for my stupidity," is what Wooten recalled saying to the attendant.
"I started EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) sessions with Steve Walls. He helped through my divorce, my pill addiction. Try it if you are in need," Wooten said.
Today, Wooten is staying strong. She has reconnected with her sister and shares custody of her daughter, Rylie. Her leg has been opened eight times for follow-up surgeries as a result of the recurring infections that two years ago forced doctors to replace the rod.
During this year's Whittle the Wood Rendezvous in Craig she was working in her new job as an information specialist with the Craig Chamber of Commerce when Wooten fell in the long grass loosening the rod in her leg.
"I was attending my first big chamber event, and I was excited. I fell in a hole and twisted my leg. I knew it was done," Wooten said.
An x-ray and follow-up with her doctors in Denver confirmed that her leg would need more reconstruction. After much thought, Wooten made a decision she had put off for 17 years.
"I decided to cut my own leg off. This was a long time in coming. It is not a decision that I was told I have to do. At first I was told to choose life over limb, I was blessed with both 17 years ago. But now I'm choosing life," Wooten said.
Case number 34, Wooten's number in the cancer treatment she went through 17 years ago, was a success. Wooten is still cancer-free.
"Having an amputation isn't a failure. It's her choice and a quality of life choice for her. We could continue to rebuild her leg. When she came to me this summer she said, 'Why don't we just cut it off?' She's given it a lot of thought. And we'll continue to take good care of her," Kelly said. "She has begun meeting with people to support her to get her through this process and get to a new normal for Amanda."
At her darkest, Wooten was isolated as she suffered from deep emotional and physical pain. This time she's put together a support crew including her sister, her daughter and her best friend, Brandi Sanchez.
"We are sticking together. I've set up a Go-Fund-Me. We are halfway to raising $5,000 to help Amanda with travel, food and a few perks to give her reasons to remember why she loves life," Sanchez said.
Wooten's family also is rallying behind her.
"I feel really good about her decision, because I know that this is inevitable given the circumstances. She hasn't taken it lightly. She's given it a lot of thought, knowing all the facts," Baker said. "People may not understand it, or think she's making a mistake. She's being honest and is making a really good, informed decision and it's going to be OK, not easy but OK. I think this is the right decision for her."
The choice to remove her limb presents challenges.
"I'm not sure how the next steps will go, what she will need, but I want to help her as much as I can even if it's with meals or housework to make sure those things get done," Baker said. "She's my little sister, so I worry about her and want her to be healthy and happy to get past this chapter (to make her more independent)."
As someone who has lost a limb to osteosarcoma, Huckaby has insight to the next phase in Wooten's journey.
"It's going to be a big change. Don't let that stop you. Reach out to people overcoming loosing a limb. Reach out to them. Don't give up," Huckaby said. "The first year was really rough coming from an athletic background, it was a shock. Keep pushing yourself and making baby steps every day. Start small and be patient."
The two women have survived osteosarcoma by adopting positive attitudes and taking strength from family, friends, their medical teams and the community when they were struggling.
"This community is amazing for support," Wooten said. "I wanted to walk back into Craig after my surgery in September, but I've learned that's not going to happen right away, so I'll hop back into Craig."
In an effort to “own” her condition rather than letting it define her, Wooten is cracking jokes such as saying she's changing her name to "Ilean" and planning a series of Halloween Costumes such as dressing as Sergeant Dan from the movie “Forrest Gump.” She is also setting goals.
"I'm a big hunter and after five years of not hunting, I plan to get my first bull muzzleloading in about two years," she said.
Huckaby also has big plans. She starts later this month to prepare to compete for a place on the 2018 Winter Paralympics snowboard team.
"I have an athlete page, please follow that, I love positive words especially when I get ready to compete," Huckaby said.