Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Combating cancer on the slopes (with video)

Ski therapy » Outing helps young victims get past disease.
By Mike Gorrell

The Salt Lake Tribune

Updated: 01/06/2009 10:33:12 AM MSTPark City » Not quite three months after her cancerous left leg was amputated just below the hip, Amanda McDaniel watched Paralympian Monte Meier carve fluid one-legged turns Monday at Park City Mountain Resort.

"That will be you before long," said one of McDaniel's instructors from the National Ability Center.

The high school junior responded with a dubious "Oh, yeah" grin. But then she pushed off with her right leg, maintaining balance with the curved outriggers on the ends of her poles as she followed Meier down the slope.

"You've got it," encouraged her primary instructor, Tracy Riddleberger-Meier (Monte's wife), as the group headed back to First Time chairlift for another run.

McDaniel is one of 13 young cancer patients participating in a "Rehabilitation Ski Trip" conducted annually since 1982 by the Children's Cancer Hospital at The University of Texas's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.

Many have lost limbs to cancer.

None have lost their zest for life.

"They don't whine," said instructor Vince Barbisan, who was teaching Felipe Olivarez, 21, of Houston, the fine points of sit-skiing.

After bone cancer cost Olivarez his left arm and accentuated other health problems, his physical activity had been reduced to playing video games. But although he has spent little time on snow, this trip has inspired him.

"Skiing is a lot different than anything I'd experienced. It's kind of difficult, but I'm getting the hang of it," he said. "I'm more confident. Next year I'll get a little better."

The chance to instill that kind of outlook prompted pediatric oncologist Norman Jaffee to initiate the trip after he saw how much skiing had done for one of his early patients, Ted Kennedy Jr., who lost a leg to cancer in 1973.

"If it was good enough for Ted Kennedy, it was good enough for my other cancer patients," said Jaffee, who initially took patients to Winter Park, Colo., but switched to Park City because he was impressed by National Ability Center founder Meeche White's commitment to helping people with disabilities.

Besides five days of skiing, the cancer kids have a dance. They have an off day to shop in Park City and, importantly, spend time with peers who are going through what they are going through -- and with older people who have survived cancer and thrived.

"All the people you meet are amazing," said McDaniel, a cheerleader looking forward to using her new prosthetic leg when she returns home to Columbia, Mo. "We've gone through similar but different things. It's nice to talk it out."

She has become friends with Amy Jensen, 18, of Estherville, Iowa, who ran track and cross country before a leg was amputated in July of 2007. Nicknamed "Awesome Amy" by her instructors, her goal is to run the Boston Marathon.

"I never thought I'd be able to ski," she said Monday, her third day on the slopes. "My first day I was scared. My mental was bad. But now I think it's fun."

Beginners like Jensen are continually encouraged by people like Shelby Robin, 21, of Austin, now on her ninth ski trip. "To see their progress is really cool," said the fast-skiing Robin, a big Jupiter Bowl fan whose experience beating cancer motivated her to begin nursing school next week.

Watching Robin progress has been inspirational for Jackie Fehr, her instructor the past half dozen years.

"Once they're on the hill, they forget they're disabled, that there's a problem. After they learn that, they can do anything."


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