Stories of Hope
Alternative Surgery Gives Cancer Patient a Second Chance
Article date: November 19, 2001
"A young girl battling leukemia told me toughen up; that's exactly what I am doing!"
Learning to walk again is the last thing 38-year-old Phillip Purvis expected to be doing at this point in his life. Eight months ago, Purvis was a healthy, energetic man who went about his business each day, at times working six days a week. And he spent quality time with his family.
Today, he is still the same devoted husband and father, but physically he has changed. Last July, doctors discovered Purvis had an osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, in his left leg.
The tumor was wrapped around his femur (upper thigh bone). Tests showed the tumor was malignant, so it had to be removed quickly — before it had a chance to spread.
Chancing a Choice
Purvis' three options were a complete amputation of his leg, total knee replacement, or what he calls "outer space" surgery, which would allow him the most mobility. He did not want his whole leg removed, and he did not want knee replacement because he would have to have a second replacement later down the road.
The only other option to seriously consider was the one with very little history. The medical term for this "outer space" surgery is Van Nes rotationplasty.
The doctor told Purvis his leg below the knee was cancer-free. He said he would remove the part of the upper leg containing the tumor, and then attach his lower leg to what remained of his upper thigh.
It sounds strange, but the most bizarre part was that his doctors would re-attach his lower leg backwards. His ankle could then serve as a "knee," and a prosthetic lower leg would eventually allow him to walk again.
Purvis says he could hardly believe what he was hearing, but if it meant he would be cancer-free and able to walk with a prosthesis, then he was willing to risk it.
"[The doctor] told me this type of surgery was still fairly new; that he had only seen it done more than five times, but less than 10," says Purvis. He says knew it was outlandish, but he put his trust in his team of doctors and prayed he would walk again.
"If something happened and this surgery did not work, I knew I could always choose to have my leg amputated," says Purvis.
Just one month before Purvis' diagnosis, his wife Debbie and her family had participated in the American Cancer Society's (ACS) Relay For Life. Purvis planned to join them, but was in so much pain when he walked, he decided to stay behind.
Although they did not know what their future held, cancer was no stranger to their family. Purvis' father, Nelson, was diagnosed with oral cancer and underwent surgery in the summer of 2000.
After hours of surgery and numerous chemotherapy treatments, Purvis is walking again — this time with his foot turned around. It has been almost seven months since cancer turned his world upside down.
Simple tasks he did in the past with little thought have now become a challenge.
"I can't even carry a bowl of cereal to the family room without someone's help," says Purvis. "I've had to change my whole way of living and doing things.
Buoyed by Friends and a Fateful Meeting
Through the hospital stays and surgery Purvis had the support of his family and close friends to keep his spirits high. Having not experienced what he had, there was no way to describe the accompanying emotions — until a chance meeting.
Purvis met many new cancer patients, but one was extra special. By coincidence, his sister-in-law met Austin Biggs from Russell, Ky., who had undergone the same surgery a year before Purvis.
"Finding someone other than a medical professional for Phillip to talk to was the best thing that could have happened," says Debbie.
Purvis is back at work, with the help of his prosthesis, helping manage the family-owned Honda dealership. Just as the doctor explained, the prosthesis is a better fit because of the Van Nes rotationplasty.
"It feels so good to be able to work again," says Purvis. "After several weeks at home, you start to feel the walls closing in."
The worst may be over for Purvis and his family, but he has not forgotten others who continue to battle cancer. "I want to do what I can to help people get through this terrible disease," he says.
One way he is lending support is by being the honorary chair member at the ACS' Relay For Life. Cindy Schwartz, this year's chair, says, "Just being there makes you feel good about yourself."
She also says that seeing cancer survivors like Purvis and others who are still fighting the disease drives her to continue to volunteer in hopes of finding a cure.
In the beginning, Purvis just hoped to eventually walk again, but after physical therapy and with determination, he has set his goals much higher. He hopes to walk without assistance at this year's Relay For Life in June.
Today, "he is doing great," Debbie tells ACS News Today. "He's got his prosthesis, he's back at work!"
"When I was sick, a young girl battling leukemia came to my room in the hospital and told me to toughen up — that's exactly what I am doing!" says Phillip.