Karli Has Cancer

“Everyone thinks that because you had this terrible disease, you’re weak... But they don’t understand that cancer survivors are actually so strong—we’ll never give up.” –Karli Leonard


By Karli Leonard, as told to Lauren Greene

It all started with a hard knot in my lower left calf when I was 12 years old. My mom and I both thought it was just a pulled muscle, but from the look on my doctor’s face when we showed it to him at my yearly checkup, we knew something was very wrong.

After that, everything happened fast. The doctor sent me for an MRI, a test in which they took a magnetic image of my leg, and when the results came back a few days later, they could already tell that it was probably one of two types of cancer. So I went back to the hospital for even more tests, which confirmed I had osteosarcoma (AH-stee-oh-sahr-KOH-muh), a type of bone cancer that usually develops during the teen years. I don’t know why, but when I heard the news, I wasn’t that shocked. I didn’t even cry! Both my grandmother and grandfather had had cancer, so I knew the drill. I was like, “Let’s just do this and get it out of my body!”

When it came to telling my friends, I started with a few close ones, who then asked if they could tell someone else—until most of the school knew. Luckily, lots of people were really supportive. They sent flowers and cards, and one girl I didn’t even know that well raised $100 for me at her church! But I also had friends who started drifting away after they heard the news. I know that they were probably just afraid and didn’t know what to say to me, but it was still hard to watch that happen.

It was also hard to be out of school for so long—during my treatments, I spent more than 100 days in the hospital and missed my entire seventh-grade year. I started with chemotherapy, and then six months later, I had an operation to take the tumor out of my leg. Up until then, I had handled everything really well, but lying on the hospital bed as I waited for them to roll me into surgery was the scariest moment of my life. So many things were running through my head! I didn’t know what the doctors were going to find, or if they were going to have to amputate my leg. Thankfully, when I woke up, I learned that they got the whole tumor out and it hadn’t spread to other parts of my body. That was the best news ever. But they did have to remove part of my fibula bone from my calf. Since that’s just a support bone, I’m still able to walk, but I’ll never again be able to do any activity that’s too strenuous on my leg. I think I’ll always miss being able to run around.

I finally got to go back to school in eighth grade, which was tough. I was on crutches because of the surgery and wore a cap everywhere because the chemo made my hair fall out. A lot of times people would look at me weird in the hallway, and for me, that was the worst. I wished they would have just walked up and asked me a question. Everyone thinks that because you had this terrible disease, you’re weak and can’t handle anything. But they don’t understand that cancer survivors are actually so strong—we’ll never give up and can do anything that we put our minds to.

This past August, I celebrated the one-year anniversary of my last chemo treatment. I still have to go for checkups every six months for the next four years, which means I won’t be officially declared cancer-free until I’m 18, but it helps to know that I’m a better person because of it. Going through something so huge means you mature a lot faster than your friends. I still feel like a normal teen in so many ways, but I view life with a different perspective.

I get so angry when people say stuff like, “I’m having such a bad day that I just want to die.” Life is way too short, and I’ll never waste another minute worrying about the little things.

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