Alex Parra: Cancer Survivor Thriving with Above-Knee Prosthesis
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At just 16, Alex had his leg amputated due to cancer. Now 21, Alex is a two-time cancer survivor, budding Paralympic swimmer, and working towards his college degree with the support of family, friends, and prosthetic care from Hanger Clinic.
Alex was a high school junior, life guard, and very active swimmer on his school swim team when he started having knee pain. After about two months of working through the pain, his mom noticed a lump on his knee. At just 15 years old, Alex was diagnosed with osteosarcoma – bone cancer.
He started chemotherapy while trying to stay in school and be a normal teenager. When the chemotherapy wasn’t working on its own, Alex was presented with two options – a knee replacement or amputation.
Alex and his family met with people who had a knee replacement and lower limb prosthesis to learn about their experiences and living with the technology. He carefully weighed his options, knowing he wanted to continue to live an active life. After meeting a fellow active amputee who swims, runs, bikes, and so much more—also named Alex—he felt an above-knee amputation would give him the best shot at the most active life.
At 16 years old, Alex had his amputation surgery. His doctors told him he made the right choice, as they were able to catch more of his cancer during the surgery. He continued chemotherapy for 6 months after surgery. The process to learn to walk with a prosthesis while undergoing chemotherapy was slow. But Alex wanted to walk again, not to mention get strong enough to eventually get back in the pool, so he didn’t give up. On May 22, 2017, Alex was declared in remission.
“Learning how to walk again was hard. I had to learn how to do something that I thought I knew so well. I stayed positive and kept pushing as much as I could.”
Alex focused on working with the Hanger Clinic team in Roseville to be able to maximize the use of his above-knee prosthesis. By July 2017, after months of rehab, he was able to walk again. Then his second set of scans in 2017 showed four small spots on his lungs. Alex chose to have surgery to remove them, but during surgery they were only able to locate 3 of the 4 spots.
Back in the Pool
Alex was in his senior year of high school and back in the pool swimming 6 hours a day. It was hard in the beginning. Learning to swim with only one leg left him zigzagging in the pool. With the help of his coach and hard work, it all started to come together again. He finished off his senior year of high school with graduation. Right after, Alex and his friends spent the night at Disneyland to celebrate and have some fun. When they returned, he got a call from his doctors that he needed to come in right away. The doctors told Alex that the cancer had returned and spread in his lungs. It was labeled Stage IV with only a 10% chance of survival and an estimated three months left to live.
“I was in shock. After all I had been through, I couldn’t believe this was happening. All my friends were busy planning for college, and I was ready to start a new chapter with them. Instead I was left wondering if there was a miracle out there for me or if these were my last days.”
Alex wasn’t eligible for chemotherapy. His only hope for treatment was a clinical trial in New York with no guarantee that it would work. He decided to have the doctors remove the tumor in his lungs and hope to get accepted into the trial.
After 1 1/2 months of waiting, he received a phone call from New York saying he got into the trial.
In January 11, 2019, after six months of immunotherapy treatment, Alex beat cancer once again and was declared in remission. Since then, he’s been focusing on Paralympic swimming with the goal of representing the US in Paris in 2024. Alex swims at UC Davis Swim Club, works, and is studying business at Sacramento State.
“It’s great to be back in school after being in the hospital and worrying if I would have a future. I’ve learned to embrace my disability and show people who I am. I want others going through cancer or amputation to feel hope and know they are not alone.”
Family and Hanger Clinic Support
Through all of this, Alex credits his family and the Hanger Clinic team for their support.
“My family supported me every step of the journey, and my prosthetist Esau and the Hanger Clinic team have been here for me since day one. The team always has my back, provides me with top care, and helps me through the insurance process. Any new activities I tell them I want to try, or any problems I may have, the team is there to support me. In the pool I don’t use a prosthesis, but you’ll rarely catch me just sitting down. I’m always active and on the go with my prosthesis, or using my running blade when I want to get out there for a run. My five-year goal is to hike the notoriously challenging Half Dome Trail at Yosemite. Don’t let a day pass you by. Get out there and live it.”
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