Gabrielle’s Story: Surviving Sarcomas

“Life came to a sudden halt when Gabrielle was diagnosed with osteosarcoma,” says Gabrielle’s mother, Tami. That was in 2006, and life is just now beginning to resume some sense of normalcy.

Gabrielle was only six-years-old when she began to limp. For someone with Gabrielle’s passion for physical activities and sports, this limp was very out of the ordinary. A family friend and physician recommended that Gabrielle see a doctor at Children’s Cancer Research Fund-backed University of Minnesota.

“The diagnosis was both shocking and scary,” says Tami. Osteosarcoma is a malignant bone tumor that usually develops in adolescents.

The first course of action for Gabrielle was chemotherapy. Then the tumor was removed along with Gabrielle’s knee and part of her femur and tibia. Inside her leg, physicians placed an expandable prosthetic device, which would grow over time with leg-lengthening procedures. Except for the scar, Gabrielle’s leg looked fairly normal, but her life had become anything but normal.

“I hate my blood.”

Gabrielle spent more than a year receiving 18 rounds of chemotherapy at the University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital. “The illness, appointments, and treatments became our entire lives for the next few years,” says Tami. “It was emotionally draining.”

Gabrielle was cared for by a team of doctors that included Daniel Mulrooney, M.D., pediatric hematology oncologist; Denis Clohisy, M.D., professor and chairman, Department of Orthopedic Surgery; and Elizabeth Braunlin, M.D., pediatric cardiologist, University of Minnesota Children’s Hospital.

Why a cardiologist? Gabrielle went into heart failure during a clinical trial in which she received pegylated interferon. Doctors think it was the chemotherapy that put her into heart failure, and the interferon just pushed it over the edge; but no one knows for sure. What Tami does know, however, is that now she not only fears the return of Gabrielle’s cancer but also the impact of life-long heart issues, which are common among childhood cancer survivors.

Throughout all of her treatments, Gabrielle was accompanied by her “super soft blanket and her three small blankies,” says Tami. “She adjusted well to all of the doctor appointments and medications, but the limitations placed on her lifestyle were hard to endure. When her blood counts were down, she couldn’t do her favorite activities, like swimming. That was more difficult for her than being on crutches. I would hear her say, ‘I hate my blood.’”

While Gabrielle clung to her blankets for comfort, her family clung to their faith. “Our faith in trusting God grew, and we grew stronger as a family,” says Tami. The family also gains strength from Gabrielle herself.

“Gabrielle is teaching us never to give up,” says Tami. “She keeps plugging away. She had to relearn to walk after she went into heart failure, but she does not see her own disability. She has tremendous perseverance.”

Living each moment

Today, Gabrielle is looking forward to starting fifth grade. She just had her fourth leg-lengthening procedure and continues to play softball and basketball. She knows she has to hit the softball farther because it takes her longer to run to first base. “She’s a feisty little kid,” says her mother. “Our doctor told us that recovery is 10 percent leg and 90 percent personality. She has to work hard, but she doesn’t give up.”

Gabrielle’s dream is to be a sports reporter some day. Her mother’s dream for her is simply to live a long, happy and healthy life.

“We live in the moment more than we used to,” says Tami. “We have learned to recognize and enjoy really good days.” To those families who may be facing a challenge like Gabrielle’s, Tami offers these words of advice: “Stay strong and believe!”