Janis Ollson was pregnant with her second child and experiencing unbearable back pain. She endured sleepless nights and a growing sense of helplessness, having to crawl across the floor simply to get her young daughter a drink.
Physicians in Canada initially diagnosed Janis with sciatica. Concerned about other causes, a neurologist ordered a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan. It revealed a tumor the size of her hand on her lower spine, which physicians suspected was cancerous.
But confirmation and biopsies had to wait until after the birth of her baby.
Two weeks after her daughter was delivered by C-section, tests showed Janis had chondrosarcoma, a primary bone cancer. Because chondrosarcoma is rare in a younger person, her physicians in Canada sent tumor tissue to Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., for confirmation.
The diagnosis was confirmed. Because chondrosarcoma typically does not respond to chemotherapy or radiation, Janis' only chance for survival was surgery.
But removing the tumor and the spreading cancer presented a seemingly insurmountable challenge: Remove Janis' lower spine, half of her pelvis and her left leg.
The procedure would separate her healthy right leg and pelvis from her spine.
A multidisciplinary team of Mayo specialists led by orthopedic surgeon Michael Yaszemski, M.D., Ph.D., began designing a bold strategy for saving the young mother's life. The process began in the anatomy lab, where experts in biomechanics designed a unique method for reconstructing her pelvis.
"The plan was to remove the tumor, splitting my pelvis in half and removing the left half and left leg and lower spine," Janis recalls. After removing the cancer, Mayo Clinic doctors planned to reconstruct her midsection using bone from the amputated leg.
The procedure had never before been performed on a patient. Yet Janis was optimistic.
"The plan wasn't for the chondrosarcoma," she says. "It was to save my children's mother's life."
Janis' first surgery removed her left leg, half of her pelvis where the tumor was located, her tailbone and part of her lower spine. It took Dr. Yaszemski and a team of eight Mayo surgeons, working with critical care medicine specialists, anesthesiologists and nurses, 13 hours and 20 units of blood.
The cancer was successfully removed, but the challenge of reconstruction remained.
In her second surgery, a seven-hour operation, Mayo surgeons used the top portion of the leg that was removed, rotated it and secured it to her pelvis. Then, they shifted her right leg and remaining pelvis and secured it to her spine.
The reconstruction allowed Janis to maintain function of her right leg while providing a foundation for the possibility of a prosthetic left leg.
"Successful, challenging surgeries are the product of teamwork — a hallmark of the collaborative environment at Mayo," says Dr. Yaszemski.
Janis was kept sedated during the week between the two surgeries. In that time, she and her husband would have celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary.
The story of this groundbreaking surgery and first-ever pelvic reconstruction appeared on the "TODAY Show."
Today, Janis is cancer-free, although she lives with the knowledge it could return at any time.
She lives the active life of a busy mom — snowmobiling her children to school and driving to music and soccer and baseball and swimming lessons. She uses a wheelchair, crutches, or a prosthetic pelvis and leg.
"My life today is everything I always dreamed, except I am sitting down, rather than standing," she says.
"I volunteer at school and in the community. I take my children to church, to the zoo, to musicals, to plays, to the movies. I go biking with them. I garden with them. I do homework with them, I read with them every day."
"The list of what I don't do might be easier," admits Janis with a laugh. "I have one friend who tells me I am over-the- top involved. I just want to ensure that every opportunity my children are offered they receive."
The day of this interview, Janis had just finished organizing community skate-a-thon raising money for the school and a community park. "I will not sit on the sidelines and watch others live their lives."
Janis is mentoring others seeking similar cancer treatment and reconstruction at Mayo Clinic — people like Jeff Lukye, who sought treatment at Mayo because of the success of Janis' reconstruction.
Colon cancer had completely penetrated the right side of Jeff's pelvis, grown around his hip and encased several nerves in his right leg.
In December 2010, Mayo surgeons removed a tumor along with a portion of Jeff's colon, his small intestine, half of his pelvis, right hip, right leg, bladder and prostate.
Except for blood vessels and some nerves, his lower extremity was disconnected from his spine.
Janis says she is honored to be of support. "If it wasn't for the Mayo Clinic, I wouldn't be here today."
In May 2010, Janis walked down the aisle of her church on her husband, Daryl's, arm — using a cane and a prosthetic leg with a microprocessor. She and Daryl were renewing their vows on their 10-year anniversary, an emotional celebration of their life together.
Janis says she's leaned on Daryl, her high school sweetheart, throughout the ordeal.
"I wanted to tell Daryl what he means to me," says Janis. "And since we grew in faith throughout our ordeal, we decided to baptize our children at the same time. It was a family vow and a recommitment."
"I will always be grateful to my amazing team at Mayo Clinic for the gift of my being here while my kids grow up."