Last week marked the first week of the spring semester for University of Richmond students, including returning student and cancer survivor Tracy Akers.
Akers was first diagnosed with a rare bone disease as a freshman in high school.
“It wasn’t cancer, but it wasn’t benign,” Akers said. “About every two years my orthopedic oncologist would go in and replace my tibia bone with someone else’s femur bone.”
During Akers’ freshman year at Richmond, she walked onto the varsity basketball team but suffered damaging injuries to what she called her “cursed leg.” Akers tore both her meniscus and ACL during her time as an athlete.
By the middle of her sophomore year, Akers had made the difficult decision to give up basketball. On top of biannual surgeries and the injuries she suffered, her leg couldn’t take much more.
“I really enjoyed being a student-athlete,” Akers said. “But…I re-tore my ACL and I was like, 'I can’t do this anymore. I’m damaging my body to the extreme.'”
Unfortunately, life after basketball was not the end of her cursed leg.
In December 2015, her senior year, Akers was back in the operating room for another surgery — nothing out of the ordinary for her at this point in her life.
“When [my doctor] went back in, he didn’t finish the surgery,” Akers said. “He told me he couldn’t finish the surgery, and I was like, 'OK, well what’s going on?' And he said, 'Well your tumors look a lot different than they did in the past, and I’m pretty sure it’s metastasized and turned to cancer.'”
Akers had about eight total surgeries on her leg before she was diagnosed with osteosarcoma.
“And that’s when everything really started and it happened really quickly,” Akers said. She had surgery to get her port put in for chemotherapy and was instantly put on crutches. She was no longer allowed to walk on her leg because the tumors could have caused the bone to break.
Akers referred to her treatment as “the life or death chemo.”
“I got some really nasty stuff,” Akers said. “It made me sick. I cut my hair, all of the traditional stuff that happens when you have cancer.”
Two months into her treatment, Akers was going into her third round of chemo when her new oncologist informed her that the chemo was not killing her cancer — it was killing her.
Three days later, her leg was amputated. The night before Akers lost her leg, she held a funeral for her foot with her mother and sisters.
She created paintings with her feet on white canvas, full of color and life, much like her personality. Akers keeps the paintings on the walls of her bedroom.
Akers’ feet the night before her leg was amputated. She used her feet to create paintings as a part of a funeral she had for her leg.
“Cancer was the easy part,” Akers said. “Learning to walk again… it’s kind of unimaginable, but I have had a lot of really great people helping me.” Akers wears a computerized prosthetic leg that attaches to her mid-thigh.
After losing her leg, Akers had six more rounds of chemo. This past September, she finished the sixth and final round.
Akers went into remission on Sept. 11, 2016.
Her fight did not go unnoticed by the Richmond student body. Members of the Richmond College Student Government Association and Richmond’s Interfraternity Council (IFC) dedicated this past “no-shave November” to Akers, and raised money for her while raising awareness of bone cancer.
Ken Anderson, the president of RCSGA, said he had gotten together with several other groups on campus, including the IFC, to promote positive masculinity on campus as well as support a good cause.
“The goal is to make sure that we let students know that cancer can happen to anyone, and it’s all of our responsibilities to support survivors, support people who are going through the challenges that come with having such a serious condition,” Anderson said.
Akers working with her prosthetist, Joe Sullivan.
Akers admitted to feeling overwhelmed with love and support from so many people — even people who she doesn’t know at all.
“People are pouring all this love in you,” Akers said. “Sometimes people have a hard time giving and sometimes people have a hard time receiving. It’s the same philosophy I guess.”
About a month after Akers’s diagnosis, her aunt created a GoFundMe page to raise money for things like food, supplements and gas used to go back and forth from the hospital. The GoFundMe page has raised $21,061 in about a year.
This spring semester is Akers’ last semester of her undergraduate career. She will graduate in May with a double major in leadership and English and a minor in creative writing.
“I’m really in a limbo state right now,” Akers said. “I don’t know what I want to do in my life. I don’t know what I’m super passionate about yet, and there’s kind of some beauty in that. There’s kind of some beauty in being a blank canvas.”
Contact reporter Hannah Matheson at firstname.lastname@example.org