The summer before my transition into middle school was the first time the word “cancer” belonged to me. The dull aching in my right shin had become a dizzying, double-vision inducing pain, that could no longer be attributed to the rate at which I was growing. But while deep down I knew it was something more than growing pangs, I was blindsided when they handed me the diagnosis of osteosarcoma – bone cancer. Though I wasn’t aware of this in that moment, this diagnosis would create a new narrative for me, one in which I defined myself as both ‘cancer survivor’ and ‘amputee’.
Though neither of those truths were easy to swallow as my own, being a cancer survivor sure went down easier than being an amputee. Overcoming cancer made me a hero, an inspiration, a survivor. But being an amputee? That put me in the dark and shameful place of being a cripple, disabled, broken. “Oh you can do anything, you’re alive” adults rejoiced, “She only has one leg” peers whispered. And for the over a decade after my amputation, the only thing I heard were those whispers, which very quickly became my own. And so, I became a ‘closet amputee’.
Being a ‘closet amputee’ is just how it sounds. I didn’t talk about it, I wished for it to be different every single day, I refused to accept it as my reality or to associate with any type of culture related to it. (Which, in retrospect, pretty difficult to do when like, 18% of you is robot…) It was unhealthy; it was limiting, and man, was it bad for my head and my heart.
The change started slowly, and while I know it started in me, it had a lot to do with a very special person who came into my life. He made me talk about it, he joked about it, put me on a motorcycle, a bicycle, pushed me past my point of comfort. I loved him for it, and sometimes I really, really didn’t like him for it. But either way, the door to my dark secret had been cracked, and someone actually loved me despite it, maybe even for it.
Pretty soon my internal narrative started to change, “Emily, you are an amputee. “ And while this shift in self-awareness felt less heavy, I still found myself wishing desperately that it wasn’t my reality. I could be a cancer survivor, but I why did I have to lose my leg?
And then all at once, over the period of the past two years, I fell comfortably and confidentially into acceptance. I moved to Denver, Colorado with that boy who filled me with confidence, and there I found an outpouring of resources and community for amputees. But in order to embrace and benefit from those resources and that community, I needed to face it: I was an amputee. And by that point, I was truly tired of limiting myself because I didn’t want to look different, I was ready to figure out how to start experiencing and enjoying all those activities my friends and family had the fortune of participating in.
I started with adaptive yoga under the instruction of Liza Morgan at PH7 Collective in The Highlands. It was mind-blowing, life-changing. I couldn’t believe something that made my mind and body feel this good existed, and that I had access to it! My lower back pain was quickly gone, my heart felt lighter and my stress levels flat lined.
A few months later, I accepted a position working in fundraising at a nonprofit called The Limb Preservation Foundation. I remember seeing the post for the position, reading through the requirements and thinking, “oh yeah, I’m definitely qualified for this” (I had received my undergraduate in nonprofit management and done fundraising and event planning in my past positions). But then, I visited their website and learned that the community they supported included cancer survivors and amputees. Woah, serendipitous.
I love my job for many reasons. I love fundraising. I love events. I love people. But I also love my job because every day I have the opportunity to connect with patients whose journeys I know on an intimate level, whose journeys I have lived as my own. And for them, they don’t see me being an amputee as a failure, as I did for so long. Being an amputee can make me a hero or an inspiration in their eyes, traits I thought only came with the cancer survivor side of things. I love my job because it makes me face, acknowledge and accept, every day, who I am. I am a cancer survivor. I lost my leg to save my life. I am an amputee.
Coming on with The Foundation also presented me with the opportunity to meet a lot of incredible people who were affiliated with orthopedics, bone cancer and amputees. One of those amazing people invited me to my first LIM359 event, and so I became involved with this incredible group of very secure, very capable individuals. A group I am proud to be a part of.
So a few months ago, when one my absolute favorite people from this group, jokingly and lovingly called me a closet amputee, I found myself thinking “girlfriend, you have no idea”. I have come so far since I lost my leg at the age of 11, but I am also truly excited to see what the future has in store for me. In the past two years I have learned to ride a bike, yoga and rock climbing – I can’t wait to see what else is out there that I haven’t discovered.
I am Emily Williams. At the age of 10 I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma. After three months of chemotherapy, my leg was amputated to remove the tumor and increase my likelihood for survival. After 8 more months of chemotherapy, I entered remission. I have been cancer free for 15 years. I am alive, I am a cancer survivor, I am an amputee, and I am a bad-ass. And so are you!
Learn more about Emily here.
Well written. I enjoyed your coming out story.