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Young cancer survivors share determination and a love of sports

One fall day in 2014, Bailey Moody made a special visit to Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta to meet Grace Bunke, who was undergoing treatment for osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer.

Bailey, 13, also gave Grace, 11, a pink boxing glove penned with a message:

Don’t underestimate what you can really do if you put your mind to it. You are strong and you can make it through.

Grace hung the pink glove on her IV pole. The pink object was a constant source of encouragement.

The girls already shared a lot in common. They were both preteens living only about 15 minutes apart: Grace of east Cobb and Bailey of Johns Creek. They were both very active, having played multiple sports. Grace was a member of her church soccer and school track and cross-country team. Bailey played basketball, volleyball — and was in jump rope club.

And they had both been diagnosed with osteosarcoma after experiencing excruciating pain in their knees. (Bailey had a cancerous tumor in her right leg; Grace in her left leg.)

Bailey first heard about Grace through a friend of a friend. Since their lives crossed paths in the hospital, they have become friends, sharing a special bond as cancer survivors. The two girls get together for Braves games and pool parties, and both attend a “Camp No Limb-itations,” a special summer camp in Georgia for kids with amputations and limb deficiencies.

Now just 12 and 14 years old, they continue to share a passion for playing sports. They are also shining examples of courage and triumph.

Today, Bailey plays on her school volleyball team, and she is a forward in the BlazeSports’ Atlanta Junior Wheelchair Hawks, a basketball team that travels and competes in tournaments across the country.

Meanwhile, Grace has taken up swimming. And last month, she competed in her very first swim meet and made it to the finals of the 50-yard backstroke swimming a time fast enough to meet the CanAm (Canadian-American) Paralympic time standards for a swimmer with a single leg amputation. She hopes to swim at the Cincinnati Para-Swim Open in May 2016.

Grace was diagnosed with osteosarcoma in August 2014; Bailey was diagnosed in March 2012.

They both underwent several rounds of chemotherapy and decided to undergo a procedure called “rotationplasty.” Choosing rotationplasty involves removing a portion of the leg with the tumor, rotating the lower part of the leg 180 degrees, then reattaching it — so the ankle functions much like a knee joint. For these girls, rotationplasty (as opposed to trying to salvage the leg using a metal implant), while a radical surgery, seemed to be the best choice for giving them mobility — and helping them get back to playing sports.

Rotationplasty is a growing option for young children with malignant tumors because of several advances, including magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), that improve the surgeon’s ability to see and access tumors before surgery.

Dr. Jorge Fabregas, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, said the increase in this type of surgery also reflects a change in mentality: Staying active is more important than appearance. Fabregas joined Children’s about five years ago to perform rotationplasty, which is gaining in popularity. This past year, there were about 20 rotationplasty surgeries performed at Children’s.

On a recent morning at Bailey’s home in Johns Creek, the two girls spent a day together during a school break. Side by side, wearing matching white Converse sneakers, Grace talked about how much Bailey helped her become comfortable with the idea of getting rotationplasty, and later helped her with not being self-conscious about the appearance of her leg after surgery.

“At first, I would cover my leg up, and then I stopped worrying about it,” said Grace, following Bailey’s lead.

And with recovery not just a physical process, Bailey, Grace and their families also talked about the support they received from CURE to connect and realize they are not alone.

Grace and Bailey both went out of their way to talk about the regular meals for lunch and dinner — from various restaurants including Willy’s and Copeland’s — set up on the Aflac floor (the Aflac Cancer and Blood Disorders Center) at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and provided by CURE Childhood Cancer, an Atlanta-based nonprofit dedicated to conquering childhood cancer through funding targeted research and through support of patients and their families.

The girls have also participated in picnics and other events organized by CURE, and their parents appreciated the emotional support provided by CURE volunteers and counselors.

Kristin Connor, executive director of CURE Childhood Cancer, has gotten to know Bailey and Grace. She said she has been struck by the “tremendous courage and determination” of both girls.

“I think neither one of them is going to allow cancer or an amputation to limit their ability to do the things they love,” Connor said. “And no sitting in the difficulty of it all. They don’t sit there in that place.”

MORE: Meet Uno the therapy dog at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta

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