Thriving on the Other Side of Treatment
- Gail Walsh was diagnosed with a soft-tissue sarcoma in 2008 after having a bump removed from her thigh.
- After surgery to remove her tumor, Walsh decided to try something new: long-distance hiking. She recently hiked just 600 miles shy of the entire 2,190 mile Appalachian trail. She would’ve continued on, but a back injury prevented her from doing so.
- A cancer diagnosis can change your life. But as we’ve seen in the case of Walsh, you can thrive on the other side of treatment.
Walsh’s Cancer Journey
Her cancer journey began in 2008 when she noticed a small bump on her left thigh. After trying to pop it unsuccessfully, she went to a general surgeon who said it was a clogged sebaceous, or fatty, cyst. But this so-called ‘cyst’ grew over the course of the next year, and a plastic surgeon ended up being the person to ring the alarm for Walsh.
“This isn’t a sebaceous cyst,” he told Gail after removing it.
He was right. Walsh’s lab results revealed she had leiomyosarcoma, a type of soft-tissue sarcoma, and the news took her breath away.
“I was a very healthy individual. I never dreamed of something like this,” Walsh told MD Anderson Cancer Center. “As I was walking out of the hospital, I called a friend in Houston and said, ‘I need help. I’m choosing MD Anderson, and I don’t know how long I’ll be in Houston.’ She said, ‘You’ve got a place.’”
In November 2009, Walsh underwent surgery to remove the tumor and a portion of her quadricep. Thankfully, her treatment would stop there as she didn’t need chemotherapy or radiation.
“I’m thankful the cancer was no worse than what it was, and that I chose to travel to a research institution,” she said. “I wasn’t happy when I saw that 7-inch scar, but having no chemotherapy or radiation, I’m good with that scar. It hasn’t impacted my strength or mobility.”
Much More than a Hike
Walsh emerged from surgery with a new sense of purpose and a drive to push her body to the limit.
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“I kind of questioned, what am I supposed to do with this now?” she said. “I had this voice tell me, ‘You need to teach people how to live.’ I feel like I’ve tried to do as much as I can.”
Less than a year after the operation, she took up motorcycle riding and cruised through the Carolinas and Tennessee. Then, in 2015, she switched her focus to long-distance hiking. She’s hiked the John Muir Trail in California, 160 miles of the Pinhoti Trail and 375 miles on the southern portion of the Appalachian Trail over several years. But she really ramped up her efforts in April 2021 when she attempted to hike the Appalachian Trail from Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, to Maine, and then Harper’s Ferry to the southern end in Georgia.
A back injury about 400 miles after summiting Mount Katahdin in Maine would unfortunately prevent her from reaching her goal. Even still, she walked just 600 miles shy of the entire 2,190 mile Appalachian trail. She may very well try to return to finish what she started one day, but for now she’s relocated to Flagg Mountain in Alabama – the southernmost Appalachian peak – to serve as caretaker of the mountain. She’s also already planned to conquer the the Colorado Trail, a 485-mile journey from Denver to Durango. Seemingly, nothing will slow this resilient cancer survivor down.
“I really like what the course of the last 12 years has brought into my life,” Walsh said.
What Is Leiomyosarcoma?
Leiomyosarcoma, or LMS, is a type of rare, aggressive cancer that grows in the smooth muscles. According to the National Cancer Institute, the smooth muscles are in the hollow organs of the body, including the intestines, stomach, bladder and blood vessels. In females, there is also smooth muscle in the uterus. These smooth muscle tissues help move blood, food and other material through the body and work without you being aware. Most often, LMS occurs in the abdomen or uterus.
LMS is a type of sarcoma, and sarcomas, in general, are a diverse group of diseases that account for only about one percent of tumors in adults and just over 10 percent of tumors in children. The main symptom of sarcomas is generally a slow-growing, painless mass, but symptoms can be hard to detect as soft tissue sarcomas are typically painless and bone sarcomas can be mistakenly diagnosed as orthopedic injuries.
“Unfortunately, most sarcomas do not cause many of the symptoms that may be associated with other cancers,” Dr. Dale Shepard, director of the Cleveland Clinic Taussig Cancer Institute Phase I and Sarcoma Programs, previously told SurvivorNet. “A mass the size of a golf ball or larger and growing should be evaluated as a potential sarcoma. It’s important that patients who do have symptoms are not dismissive of them.”
Thriving as a Survivor
A cancer diagnosis can change your life. But as we’ve seen in the case of Walsh, you can thrive on the other side of treatment.
Take Marecya Burton, for example. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer at just 20 years old. Burton was a college student-athlete looking forward to graduation at the time, but all that had to change when she was forced to move home to start treatment.
“That was definitely challenging for me,” Burton said in a previous interview with SurvivorNet. “I was looking forward to graduating.”
She also had planned on pursuing a law degree after graduation – another dream she had to give up.
“I really had to, in a sense, put my life on hold,” she said. “Sometimes I look at where I am, and I can’t help but wonder, would I be further had I not had my diagnosis?”
But instead of law school, Burton found a new passion: teaching. She became a high school teacher in Baltimore, Maryland, and she’s since made peace with her new direction in life.
“I wouldn’t change my career for the world,” she says. “It’s so fulfilling.”