Charlotte mom who lost foot to rare cancer has a message for others
When Jenn Andrews found out in January that the surest way to keep herself alive was to have her right foot amputated, she didn’t hesitate. She told doctors to go ahead and take it off.
That was the easy part.
The hard part – the excruciating part, the terrifying part, the part that consumed her with grief – was waiting to do it.
Seven long weeks to imagine herself without one foot, and how grisly the procedure would be. How often people might see her, and treat her – a health and wellness coach – as disabled. When – if? – she’d be able to chase her children around the park again.
Most people who must have a foot amputated have been in a terrible accident, or succumbed to an infection, or face some other sudden, immediate, emergency. Andrews, a 33-year-old Waxhaw mother of two small children, had time to think about it.
Too much time.
Time to panic, to worry, to cry, to wonder if she would ever feel confident enough to wear skirts and shorts again.
It had been an easy decision: The alternatives kept her at risk for a recurrence of low-grade myxoid sarcoma, the rare form of cancer that first took hold of her right foot three years ago. Besides, she’d never be able to move the same way again anyway.
Yet in the moments before she slipped into unconsciousness two Mondays ago, as surgeons prepared to separate her foot from the rest of her body, Andrews felt afraid.
She’d lived with this intense fear for nearly two months. She’d let her imagination run wild about what life would be like with one foot. She knew she’d made the right decision. But what would things actually be like when she woke up?
‘I was losing who I was’
About three years had passed since doctors removed a cancerous mass from the same foot, and as recently as this New Year’s Day, Andrews was living a pretty normal – although perhaps a more active than normal – life.
Wife to a mechanical engineer, Miles Andrews, whom she’s been in love with since their high school days, back in Winston-Salem.
Mom to a 4-year-old daughter, Hannah, and a 3-year-old son, Ari (and “fur mom” to dogs Layla, Hazel and Brody).
She’d left a corporate job three and a half years ago to be a health and wellness coach, guiding people through 30-day cleanse programs. She worked out four times a week. Mentality: “Go, go, go!” Motto: “Move because you can. Do it because you can.”
Then, on Jan. 2, a routine scan revealed a problem. Not long after, a biopsy revealed that the cancer she’d beaten once before was back.
Later in the month, doctors gave her three choices:
1. Do nothing, and expect it to eventually spread and kill her.
2. Let them try a procedure that would almost certainly inhibit her foot’s functionality and mobility while leaving a 50-50 chance of recurrence.
3. They take her foot, she heals up, she gets fitted for a prosthesis, she eventually regains full mobility, and she pretty much doesn’t have to worry about your cancer ever coming back. But, they take her foot.
“I chose what I chose because ... I just,” Andrews pauses, before finding the right words: “I don’t want to miss out on my life.”
But in the interim – as she waited and worried, as a countdown clock ticked relentlessly in her head – life almost immediately went sideways.
She went from fitness fanatic to someone who suddenly couldn’t muster enough enthusiasm to lift herself up off the couch. From avid home chef and food blogger to someone who stopped turning on the stove. She wasn’t making plans with friends. She wasn’t taking her kids on field trips.
She wasn’t doing much of anything.
“I kind of became this depressed, recluse version of myself,” Andrews says. “I was losing who I was, in the process of losing my limb.”
Everywhere she turned, everything she did, every step she took made her think about what she was going to lose.
Playing with her kids: They’re not going to remember me with two feet, she’d think to herself, and start crying. Walking through a store: I’m eventually going to forget what it felt like to move around on two feet, she’d think, and she’d cry. During a snow day this winter: “Take my picture with the kids and make sure you get both of my feet in it,” she remembers saying to her mom.
On the days she did find the motivation to get moving, she’d try to memorize the feeling of her right foot hitting the pavement.
Why? Why me? I eat as healthy as I can, I exercise as much as I can – why? Why couldn’t the tumor have been in a place where we could just carve it out and move on? I don’t want to have to re-learn to walk. I don’t want to be That Girl With the Artificial Limb. I don’t want people to stare, or whisper, or wonder what happened to me.
She ordered 15 floor-length maxi dresses. She walked into her orthopedic oncologist’s office, decorated with pictures and models of bones, and burst into tears. Her mind often drifted to the ultraviolent horror movie “Saw,” and its climax, in which a man amputates his own foot.
Fortunately, Andrews’ support group was helping her stay sane.
Her husband, Miles, was there to tell her she looked beautiful even when she wasn’t feeling it. Her daughter came to her out of the blue one day and offered an idea to make post-op life easier: “I think we should move my cups and plates to a lower cabinet, so when I’m thirsty I can get my own drink of water and I don’t have to ask you for it.” Andrews had stopped blogging about cooking, but started blogging about her ordeal, and some of the feelings she’d been struggling with; the supportive messages she got from those who read her blogs would buoy her spirit on difficult days.
Then, five days before her surgery, Andrews took to Facebook and – with tears spilling onto her cheeks, but also an infectious smile – broadcast a six-minute live video asking her friends to “get out and move on Monday. For me. For all the people that want to so bad and can’t.”
As the countdown hit 24-hours-to-go, she got out and moved herself, with one of her best friends, pushing herself through a grueling workout with abandon, treating the sweat session like it was her last. Because it felt to her like it was.
She made it through without crying.
But the tears would return that night, in happy form, when a friend texted her a collage of eight photographs, featuring 16 of her friends wearing broad smiles and gray shirts with the same big, bold words: “I Move for Jenn.”
In fact, on the morning of March 12, those big, bold words were one of the last things she saw as she drifted off to sleep in the hospital: Her nurse anesthetist showed up for work that day wearing an “I Move for Jenn” T-shirt, too.
‘I just felt this sense of relief’
A short time later, the foot was gone.
So – to her amazement – was the anxiety.
“I just felt this sense of relief. I thought I was gonna wake up to looking down and crying and feeling this sense of loss. Instead, I felt this sense of relief that this battle, that this hardship, that this nightmare of a couple months was over, and now I can move forward.”
She had been so worried about the post-surgery reality. Now she knew. And she was ready to start the healing process, ready to be That Girl with the Artificial Limb. She’s set a goal of walking by her birthday on May 12, and running a 5K by the end of the year.
Move because you can. Do it because you can.
Another surprise awaited, once the fog of anesthesia lifted: Scattered across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter were hundreds of posts with the hashtag #moveforjenn. Photos and videos of friends, neighbors, co-workers and complete strangers who drew inspiration from her message. (To date, her emotional Facebook video has been viewed nearly 80,000 times.)
Two days later, when it was time for her to go home and a hospital staffer brought a wheelchair to her room, Andrews looked at it, looked at her husband and shook her head at the chair.
She told the staffer she didn’t need it. The staffer asked if she was sure.
“I’m good, thank you,” Andrews replied. “I’m gonna walk myself out of this hospital, just like I walked in.”
Andrews took hold of a walker, maneuvered herself down the hall without help, made her way out of the building unassisted, hopped to their car on her own, and climbed into the passenger seat herself.
In the week since she was discharged, she’s fallen a couple of times, and that’s led to tears. She wept again, joyfully, when her Isagenix coworkers surprised her with an impromptu donation drive: It generated $3,000 to help with medical expenses.
But she has not cried a single time over the loss of her foot.
“I just kind of have a new outlook on life,” she says. “I’ll heal. I’ll wear high heels again. I’ll run again. I’ll use my story to inspire other people.”
Now she’s counting down again – to things that make her excited instead of sad and afraid.
About a week until she can start physical therapy. About five weeks until she can get fitted for a prosthesis – and another one or two after that, before it’ll be ready for her to try on.
As she reclines on a coffee-colored sofa in her Waxhaw living room, with her left foot up, and talks about these goals – and her journey – she smiles easily, warmly, repeatedly. Probably a hundred times over the course of an hour and 40 minutes.
She laughs while explaining how she ordered those maxi dresses because she thought she was going to be self-conscious about her leg, and how she wore one just the other day for a TV interview, and how her aunt told her she looked matronly, and how that description made her decide she wasn’t a maxi-dress woman after all.
She doesn’t cry once.
Miles Andrews arrives home from work toward the end of the conversation.
“The fact that I went out in public over the weekend twice like this,” Jenn Andrews says, sweeping her hand across legs dressed in capri sweatpants, “without a maxi dress, that is like not who I thought that I would be. But in a good way. ... I went into this depressed – this sad, broken person – and I’ve come out this stronger version of the old me.”
She turns to her husband. “Would you agree?”
He nods: “Totally.”
“And you get to keep me,” she says, smiling.
Then the living room fills with their laughter.
To support Jenn Andrews
A GoFundMe has been set up for the Andrews family to help pay for her prosthetics, since only a small portion will be covered by insurance. Details: https://www.gofundme.com/move-for-jenn.