By Sarah Garcia - July 27, 2020
Brittany Symonds vividly remembers the day that changed her life forever.
“It was the summer of 2015, I was playing softball and had just got up to bat. I crushed a ball and rounded first base when my left leg just snapped.” She thought she had just dislocated her knee. “But the whole crowd heard my leg snap.”
She was taken to the ER and given pain meds before doctors straightened her leg. “It was the worst pain I had experienced in my life.” An X-ray revealed there was a mass, and that she shattered her femur and dislocated her knee.
Doctors explained that she needed to see an oncologist. “I'm like, ’For what? I've never broken a bone in my life,’” said Symonds. “I've always been as healthy as a horse. I’m a tri-sport athlete, it just didn't make any sense.”
Three days later, she underwent surgery at Duke Cancer Center to remove the mass in her leg. “My husband is active duty Coast Guard, and we were stationed in North Carolina at the time.” Dr. Brian Brigman, an orthopedic oncologist, performed the surgery. “At first, he thought it was benign, but the color indicated that it may be malignant.”
Two weeks after surgery she went to have her staples removed. “That’s when he told me that it was in fact cancer – a rare form called leiomyosarcoma.”
“That’s all I remember him saying that day,” said Symonds. “When he said you have cancer, I couldn’t hear anything else over the pounding of my heart in my chest.”
She had a second surgery to clear the margins around the tumor and then an intra-articulate resection. “They basically put in a rod to replace my femur, and did a knee replacement.” Following surgery, she had six weeks of radiation.
In 2016 Symond’s husband came up for orders and they moved to Tampa, Florida. Brigman personally recommended Dr. Doug Letson at Moffitt Cancer Center, so she transferred for scans and follow ups.
“Everything was going well until January 2018,” she said. “I stepped off a curb and shattered my kneecap.” It was broken into nearly a dozen pieces. Letson evaluated the trauma and brought in Dr. David Joyce, a specialist in sarcoma surgery at Moffitt. Over the next year and a half, she would undergo a total of nine surgeries to attempt to salvage her leg, which was severely damaged from radiation.
In July 2019, Symonds tripped in her home, snapping the small rod in her leg. “It was literally the only thing holding it together,” she said. “At that point, there was nothing more they could do.”
Most people receive two weeks of counseling before undergoing an amputation. She faced the decision to amputate within a few days.
“I had already concluded that I couldn’t put my body through any more. I wrote my team a long email and I said, ’I’m ready, I feel it in my heart. We’ve tried everything and this is what I need to do.’”
Only July 15, 2019, Joyce performed an amputation to remove Symonds’ left leg above the knee.
“When I woke up from my amputation, I honestly felt a sense of relief,” she said.
“That spot on my leg was gone – my body could finally reset.”
And Symonds says she healed like a champ.
One of the toughest challenges she faced was sitting on the sidelines. “Being an athlete has always been who I was as a person,” she said. “I told myself that, you know, if I was given the chance, I would get back out there.”
“The amputation was like getting my life back,” she said.
"Brittany is an amazing person with incredible mental strength and positivity. Regardless of how tough this disease has been, how many hurdles she faced throughout her difficult treatment, she wasn’t going to let this slow her down in life or stop her from finding success."- Dr. Doug Letson, orthopedic oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center
As soon as she healed, Symonds found Cigar City Crossfit, a gym trained to work with adaptive athletes. “I was like, ’I’m signing up. I’m doing this.’ I was amputated in July, got my new leg in September, and was in the gym three weeks later.”
It’s been a year since she lost her left leg and gained her leopard print prosthetic, named Ziggy. “Ziggy and I, you know, we’ve really become one.” That is, unless she forgets to charge her at night. “I learned that the hard way, she went full peg leg mode on me once.”
Jokes aside, life with Ziggy wasn’t easy in the beginning. Symonds had to learn to walk again without the use of a knee joint. “I knew it would be hard, but I didn't realize how hard.”
In her gym, she feels right at home. Her trainer was injured in the military and has a rod in his arm. “He understands,” she says. “There’s another above the knee amputee. There’s someone that doesn’t have any legs. No one looks at you like you’re any different and if you fall, you get back up. No one feels sorry for you. That’s what I wanted.”
Symonds still has difficult days, but it’s her past that keeps her moving forward.
There was one instance she recalls while working out. “I was so tired and I wanted to give up in the middle of my workout. But I vividly pictured myself sitting in that hospital bed, and how I would have given anything in the world to be here working out.”
“That’s what keeps me going. I got my second chance.”
This summer, Letson delivered the news that Symonds could graduate to yearly scans. In the sarcoma world, she says, that’s big. “When you reach two years without it, that’s a big milestone. I’m at a five. That’s even more phenomenal. I’m just extremely blessed.”