Still Standing

A rare cancer took Melissa Danner’s leg, but with the help of Mary Greeley physical therapists, it did not keep her down.

Melissa Danner learning to walk with a prosthetic leg at Mary Greeley’s Rehab & Wellness clinic in Story City. She’s under the careful observation of physical therapist Sarah Burns, whose reflection is seen in the mirror.Melissa Danner learned how to walk four times.

She was a toddler the first time, encouraged by her mom and dad. The next three times were when she was an adult, coping with a leg ravaged by and ultimately lost to a rare cancer. During those times, the encouragement came from an involved and compassionate team at Mary Greeley’s Rehab and Wellness clinic in Story City. 

Katie Albrecht, coordinator with Mary Greeley Rehab & Wellness, was in Story City when Danner was doing one of her first post-amputation sessions.

“I watched a woman with a prosthetic leg walk in the parallel bars with our physical therapist, and I overheard her say, ‘I didn’t think I could do that.’ The therapist said, ‘I did’,” Albrecht said. “Her experience with this clinic is exactly the experience every patient deserves.”

NAGGING PAIN

In 2010, Danner began feeling significant discomfort in her left leg. A variety of tests failed to pinpoint the problem, which lasted off and on for two years. Then, one day in 2012, she felt severe pain running up her leg as she was getting out of her truck. The cause was a tumor in her thigh.

“That was when they could see it,” said Danner of the tumor that had been hiding in her leg muscles before it grew big enough to pop out and make its vicious presence known.

More tests and a biopsy confirmed stage 4 cancer. More specifically, it was synovial sarcoma, a rare form of cancer often found in the arm, leg, or foot, and near joints such as the wrist or ankle. The tumor and surrounding muscle tendons were removed during surgery, leaving her thigh concaved in the middle. After recovery, she needed to learn how to walk again and began therapy at Mary Greeley’s Rehab & Wellness Clinic in Story City.

“When I first came here, I saw how people interact with each other and with patients. Immediately, they were family,” she said.

“The patient/therapist bond is incredibly important because it leads to trust,” said Sarah Burns, DPT, a physical therapist who has worked with Danner. “She trusts us to help her reach her goals. We celebrate victories with her, we share in her frustrations, and we laugh a lot while working together.” 

MORE CANCER

Danner’s health issues continued to mount. Cancer moved into her lungs, resulting in another surgery. Radiation and chemotherapy before and after surgery took a toll. Her knee cap snapped in half and had to be fused back together. Not long after that, she was talking out of a store when she suddenly couldn’t move. Her femur had fractured.

She faced yet another surgery. This one resulted in a portion of her femur being removed and a sleeve being fashioned to connect her hip and leg bone. After recovery, she was at rehab, learning to walk for the third time.

“I was immobilized for so long it was hard learning to walk yet again,” she said. “But I loved coming back here.”

A BRIEF RESPITE

Danner was cancer-free for the next five years. Then, four months after a 2020 checkup, she was laying on the couch “and I couldn’t move. I felt like something was stabbing me in the groin. I had to lay there completely still or end up crying because it hurt so bad.”

Tests showed that the cancer was back. Like the last time, it “started slowly and then went 100 miles per hour,” said Danner. The tumor this time was bigger and attached to her pelvic bone. She now faced the loss of her leg and a section of her pelvis.

“I was kind of frozen for a second there,” she said describing her reaction when she got the news. “I had a pity party for a moment and then told myself, ‘We got this.’”

During a five years span, Danner lost her parents and three brothers to serious illnesses. Despite coping with loss and her own health issues, Danner has managed to keep her spirits up, to keep moving forward. She attributes to this to her faith and her commitment to physical activity, including weight lifting and swimming, which was recommended by her Mary Greeley therapy team.“I’ve always worked out so many hours a day,” she said. “I try to exceed myself. I don’t like to give up.”

“Her strength and perseverance are a huge reason she has been able to accomplish so much independence with her circumstances,” said Burns. “She has kept herself in excellent shape through exercises at home and this has put her in a great position to improve with therapy because she is so strong. She also keeps a positive outlook on her situation and on life. She is the definition of not giving up.”

With the loss of her leg, that strength was more important than ever. She woke up from surgery, sensing her left leg was still there, but it was a phantom sensation. Her leg, eaten away over the years by cancer, was gone. She was in the hospital and rehabilitation center for a month. She used a walker and a wheelchair before moving onto a prosthetic leg. Some advised her against it, thinking it would be too difficult given how much she had lost.

“That sounded like a challenge to me” she said. “Challenge accepted.” 

FOURTH TIME

She is now in therapy again and learning how to walk for a fourth time, and now with a prosthetic leg emblazoned with the logos of her two favorites sports teams: the ISU Cyclones and the L.A. Rams.

“Melissa has worked with several therapists at our clinic through the years. Throughout her time in PT the goal has always been to help her maximize her function. Prior to the amputation she had a brace that helped support her leg since she lost a lot of muscle in the surgery,” Burns said. “Post-amputation, our focus has been on training with the prosthetic leg and making sure she can use it safely at home.  We simulate a lot of things she needs to be able to do at home and help her problem solve through issues that might come up.”

The team at Story City – from her therapists to Kathy Ness, the clinic secretary who greets her whenever she arrives – the front desk has been crucial to her ability to survive each setback, said Danner.

“They listen to everything I say and give me feedback. They’ve helped me mentally just as much as physically. They believe in me when I don’t and bring out things in my that I never knew I had,” she said. “They’re family. Walking in here is like putting on my favorite pair of jeans.”

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Ames: 515-239-6770
Mary Greeley Medical Center
Medical Arts Building
1015 Duff Ave.

Story City: 515-733-5129
Story City Community Health Center
812 Elm Ave.

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