Osteosarcoma survivor shares story of cancer battle

Florencia Pistritto has recovered from bone cancer. Picture: Ian Georgeson

Florencia Pistritto has recovered from bone cancer. Picture: Ian Georgeson

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RECEIVING a cancer diagnosis is devastating enough, but one Edinburgh mother faced the additional agony that the treatment that might save her life could cost her one of her legs.

Florencia Pistritto initially noticed a painful swelling in her left knee but did not think much of it.

I was scared before the operation as I didn’t know if I’d wake up with my leg or not. If the surgeons had found the tumour spreading to other blood vessels then they would have had to amputate.

Florencia Pistritto

However, when the pain became excruciating she decided to get it checked out and was stunned when doctors at the Western General Hospital broke the news in July 2014 that she had an aggressive form of bone cancer known as osteosarcoma.

The rare condition affects around 50 Scots per year.

It is more commonly found in children and young adults as the tumours usually develop in growing bone around the arms and legs.

Hospital tests revealed that Florencia’s cancer had not spread anywhere else, which should have been cause for celebration. But instead she was given the terrifying news that surgeons might have to amputate her leg to remove the 10cm tumour.

Florencia, who lives in Restalrig, said: “Doctors told me the cancer was treatable and curable. But I started to cry when they explained what the treatment would involve.

“I knew I’d lose my hair because of the chemotherapy.

“They explained they’d aim to save my leg but couldn’t guarantee it. That was hard to take in.

“I started thinking, ‘Do I want to live with an amputated leg?’

“I’d always been so healthy until then so it all sounded like a horror story.”

Losing a leg would have been devastating to the fit and healthy single mum, who holds a black belt in taekwondo. But she bravely prepared herself for the lengthy treatment ahead, which would eventually involve 17 rounds of chemotherapy and immunotherapy, where the body’s immune system is used to try to fight cancer cells.

The first gruelling rounds of chemotherapy helped to shrink the size of the tumour by 20 per cent.

Once the tumour was a more manageable size, Florencia underwent an eight-hour operation at the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary to remove the cancer in October 2014.

When she went under anaesthetic, the 30-year-old was placed in the impossible position of having no way of knowing whether she would wake up with both of her legs remaining.

Dedicated surgeons succeeded in saving her left leg by removing her tibia and part of her femur bone, and then replacing them both with titanium rods.

Doctors also performed a skin graft, where they removed healthy skin from her side to help heal the large scar on her left leg.

Florencia, who formerly worked as a waitress, said: “I was scared before the operation as I didn’t know if I’d wake up with my leg or not.

“If the surgeons had found the tumour spreading to other blood vessels then they would have had to amputate.

“But thankfully they managed to get all the cancer out by removing all of my tibia and knee bone. They did an incredible job.”

Although the cancer had been removed, the fight had really only just begun for the mother-of-one.

Florencia had to undergo a lengthy rehabilitation process so she could learn how to walk again, along with the responsibilities of looking after her five-year-old son, Marco.

Her recovery meant more than four months in hospital, where Florencia was given the new drug Mepact – an immunotherapy drug that works by boosting the body’s natural defences against disease.

She also went through intensive physiotherapy to help retrain her muscles to work with the titanium prosthetic so that she could walk again.

Now, nearly two years on, Florencia has been told that her cancer has gone into remission, which means she is symptom-free.

She is now trying to help others by speaking out about bone cancer.

And she recently agreed to help launch Cancer Research UK’s new superstore in Corstorphine.

Florencia said: “There were days when I wanted to give up treatment, but I had a wonderful doctor who helped keep me going and promised it would be worth it in the long run.

“I’m a different person now and appreciate things I took for granted for before, especially my health.”

Speaking out to other cancer sufferers, Florencia said: “My message for all those out there battling cancer is to keep fighting.

“Find people who truly understand you. You will find some people don’t get it, they won’t walk in your shoes.

“Look for those who will support you and seek out survivors’ stories to motivate you.”

Cancer Research UK spends around £31 million a year in Scotland on some of the UK’s leading scientific and clinical research, often at its centre in Edinburgh.

Survival rates have doubled since the 1970s but more funds and supporters are needed to help scientists find a cure for all cancers.

lizzy.buchan@edinburghnews.com