At just 14 years old, Kaitlyn Vu was asked to accept a drastic, life-altering surgery. In early 2019, she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma — a rare type of bone cancer that ultimately led to the amputation of her left foot. Kaitlyn’s ability to meet each challenge of her diagnosis with a combination of grace and perseverance has made a lasting impression on not only her family, but also her entire care team at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s Cancer and Blood Disorders Center.
“She is one of the most extraordinary, inspiring people I have ever met independent of her age,” says Allison O’Neill, MD, clinical director, Solid Tumor Center at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, and Kaitlyn’s primary oncologist. “The wisdom, courage, and grace she’s displayed during this challenging time in her life is beyond admirable.”
How it started
In January 2019, Kaitlyn noticed her ankle had become swollen after soccer practice. As a competitive athlete, her initial instinct was to treat it as a sprain and take a few days of rest — but when it remained swollen more than two weeks later, she worried she was dealing with something more serious.
An X-ray revealed an abnormality in her left tibia, commonly referred to as the shin bone, and a later biopsy confirmed Kaitlyn had osteosarcoma.
“I went into shock when I first heard the word cancer,” she recalls. “Cancer always felt like something you read about in the news, but I never thought it would happen to me.”
A difficult decision
Under the care of O’Neill, Kaitlyn began chemotherapy. While osteosarcoma responds to chemotherapy, surgical removal of the tumor is the number one priority. Kaitlyn began chemotherapy to decrease the size of the tumor and to gauge its response to this treatment, as response to chemotherapy at surgical resection is felt to be an important prognostic factor.
O’Neill next led Kaitlyn through a difficult conversation. Due to the tumor’s size and location, Megan Anderson, MD, an orthopedic tumor surgeon at Dana-Farber/Boston Children’s, would need to perform either a limb-salvage surgery or amputate her left foot above the ankle. Both procedures have their own benefits and limitations, and ultimately Kaitlyn elected for amputation. Growing up as a soccer player, swimmer, dancer, and open water certified scuba diver, she wanted the opportunity to eventually get back to full mobility.
“It was not an easy decision — when you lose a foot, people look at you differently,” says Kaitlyn. “But I knew I didn’t want to be restrained going forward.”
“She was incredibly thoughtful about the whole process, and I knew that she fully understood what each decision entailed,” adds O’Neill.
The road to recovery
Kaitlyn underwent surgery in April and now goes to physical therapy multiple times a week. She says her goal is to get back to walking by the one-year mark from her diagnosis. Since the surgery, Kaitlyn has finished the remainder of her planned chemotherapy and is looking forward to remission. The remaining therapy acts as a “safety net,” attacking any microscopic disease that may exist, but wasn’t detected on her scan.
While her athletic career is temporarily on hold, that doesn’t mean Kaitlyn isn’t busy. The high school freshman plays three different instruments (piano, clarinet, and alto saxophone) and is a member of the North Quincy High School band.
While her journey has been challenging, Kaitlyn is thankful to have finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel and credits the support of her friends, family, and care team at Dana-Farber for helping her get through it all.
“The biggest thing for me was to keep a positive mindset and just take it day by day,” says Kaitlyn. “The support I received from my community and Dana-Farber helped me to feel I wasn’t alone in my fight against cancer.”