What it’s like to have your ankle become your knee

Bone cancer survivor Grace Bunke can still run, jump, even snowboard, thanks to a radical procedure
Grace Bunke
Photograph by John-Robert Ward II

When I was in fifth grade, I started having pain in my knee. I complained, but everyone thought it was just a muscle pain since I like to run. I’m on teams for soccer and track, and I just kept running on it. Then one day it hurt so much I started crying. I walked off the field and told my dad I couldn’t do this anymore.

We went to a doctor, who told us it was only a dislocated kneecap. I did physical therapy the whole summer before sixth grade, but the knee kept swelling up. Finally the doctors did an MRI, and afterward they pulled my parents into another room. When they came back, they told me I needed to have a biopsy.

I was still drowsy from the anesthesia when my doctor came into the room and told me, “Grace, you have cancer.” The first thing I said was, “Am I going to lose my hair?”

After that people were at our house all the time. One of my mom’s friends showed me her port for chemotherapy from when she’d had breast cancer. I had six chemo treatments before I had to have surgery. (I did lose my hair.) After the fourth treatment, the doctor came in to see me, and he was holding a prosthetic leg. I was scared. He explained I had three options: One, I could keep my leg, but I couldn’t be active; I couldn’t run. Two, I could have rotationplasty, which is when they remove the knee and part of the femur, take the remaining part of the leg, including the foot, rotate it 180 degrees, and then reattach it. Or three, I could have a straight above-the-knee amputation.

I knew I wanted number two before I’d even heard number three.

The good thing about the rotationplasty is that even though you still have a prosthetic shin and foot, your ankle joint becomes your knee joint, which makes it much easier to use a prosthetic. You can put weight on it. You can jump. Once I got my balance, I stopped using my crutches early, and I started running. Since then I’ve been zip-lining, snowboarding, biking, and rock climbing. I’ve started swimming competitively. And I just got a grant for a running blade, so I can keep running track. There’s really nothing I can’t do. —As told to Tony Rehagen