Look at a list of 17-year-old Whitney Carroll’s achievements and there’s no doubt that she’s not shy about taking on a challenge. You can’t be when your class load includes honors and advanced placement classes, and your “free time” includes endless hours in a pool, training as a competitive swimmer.
The Homestead High School senior from Ft. Wayne, Ind., has earned some big wins, including varsity letters, beginning her freshman year as part of Indiana’s state runner-up championship swim team, and a spot as top student, with her sights set on studying pre-med in college. Her biggest win, however, is overcoming the challenges she faced as a result of a cancerous tumor.
Facing unexpected challenges
An MRI and a follow-up biopsy at Riley at IU Health in September 2011 revealed that a suspicious bulge in Whitney’s left calf was a cancerous tumor doctors believed was a rare and life-threatening soft tissue sarcoma.
“I wasn’t sure what to make of it,” remembers Whitney. “I assumed it would be cancer, but I thought I’d get it removed and that would be that.”
What she didn’t know was what her dad, John, had learned through research, but didn’t tell her—people with that type of cancer had little chance of surviving it.
At the end of September, orthopedic surgeon Daniel Wurtz, MD, removed the tumor, and further testing revealed that the tumor was a lower grade of cancer that wouldn’t require chemotherapy or radiation and was unlikely to reoccur.
The surgery however, left Whitney with a new challenge. Although Dr. Wurtz was able to completely remove the tumor, he says it was at the cost of a large portion of the muscle in front of her upper leg, and the peroneal nerve, which fires the muscles in the front and side of the leg that raise the ankle and toes.
“Whitney was unable to raise her foot at her ankle, an issue known as foot drop,” explains Dr. Wurtz.
For Whitney, that translated as a severe limp, and eventually hip pain due to the way she had to lift her leg to walk. It also meant a struggle to regain the strength and ability required to swim at the elite level she’d worked so hard to achieve.
“Swimming became a love-hate thing,” says Whitney. “I couldn’t catch up because I didn’t have the coordination and fluidity to physically do things I needed to do to swim at the level I had been at as a freshman. I had the utmost support of my teammates, though. They were always there for me.”
The support from her teammates, along with family and other friends, were important to helping her deal with the mental challenges she faced after surgery as well.
“I was taking AP and honors classes and felt really behind,” says Whitney. “When the mental toll hit, people helped me study, catch up on notes I missed from class, and keep me sane. They reminded me that everything would be okay in the end.”
A unique solution and a new perspective
As Whitney healed from her surgery, Dr. Wurtz was making plans for another surgery—a peroneal tendon transfer—to give her movement again in her foot.
“It’s a unique procedure we use for treating cancer of the extremities with surgery, that also helps active patients achieve a high functional level,” says Dr. Wurtz. “We transferred tendons from under her foot and behind her ankle to the top of her foot,” explains Dr. Wurtz. “They were tendons fired by a different nerve that wasn’t affected by the surgery.”
“He basically rewired Whitney’s left leg,” says John, “using existing connections to do different things.”
“I was skeptical,” says Whitney. “I couldn’t understand how this one surgery could change the way my foot was going to work, but I was willing to try anything at that point to improve my leg.”
After the surgery, Whitney underwent intensive physical therapy to retrain the nerve and tendons to lift her foot and ankle. She got the proof she needed.
“I feel really good about the result,” she says. “It still isn’t perfect, but I am so happy not to have a drop foot.”
In fact, Whitney was so pleased with the result it inspired her to take on a new challenge—running.
“I’d wanted to run since my freshman year, so I ran cross country my senior year,” says Whitney. “My physical therapist thought I was nuts, but it’s turned out to be one of my best experiences of high school.”
It’s just one example of how Whitney says her life’s changed.
“I have a whole new perspective on what’s really important,” she says. “We get caught up in pretty unimportant things, especially in high school.”
That perspective helped her adapt to the physical and emotional changes she faced as a swimmer. Whitney says she knew she had to accept that she wasn’t going to be as fast as she had been. “I had to learn that my performance in the pool didn’t necessarily reflect on my personal growth. Now I feel like my emotional contribution to the team is more important than my physical contribution.”
With chances slim that the tumor will return, Whitney says she has “more appreciation for everyone and everything in my life,” including Dr. Wurtz.
“I don’t think I could have done it without him,” she says. “I knew he cared about making me well again because he made me feel very important. I was lucky to have him.”