Robb Fulcher

Surprise survivor fights childhood cancer

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Adrienne Slaughter sits still for a moment, sporting a T-shirt she wore at Carnival in Rio de Janeiro four years ago. Photo by Robb Fulcher

When Adrienne Slaughter was diagnosed with a fast-moving and deadly childhood cancer at age 14, physicians gave her a 1 percent chance of survival. As it turned out, she not only survived, but 30 years later continues to live a rich, full life at a pace that would exhaust many others.

The eternally sunny Slaughter lost her right leg to childhood bone cancer, or osteosarcoma, but the rest of her was spared by providence, quick medical attention and the love of family and friends. After the grim initial prognosis of near certain death, Slaughter has stuffed the intervening three decades with modeling, rock climbing, downhill skiing, volunteer work and high-profile speaking gigs as a cancer survivor.

Together with the Woman’s Club of Hermosa Beach, she has also founded the “Adrienne’s Search for Children’s Cancer Cure” event, which celebrates its fifth anniversary Saturday, March 5 at the Hermosa Beach Kiwanis Hall with food and drink, live music, kids’ attractions and a fundraising silent auction.

Slaughter, president of the Kiwanis Club of Hermosa Beach and an advertising sales rep with Easy Reader, is celebrating her 30th anniversary of freedom from osteosarcoma and her 25th anniversary of being cured of the disease. Physicians consider a cure to have occurred after five years with no return of the cancer.

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First signs

When the disease struck her in 1981, Slaughter was enjoying her freshman year of high school in Atlanta, Georgia, pulling down straight A’s, preparing for her part in the school musical, and occupying the top spot on the junior varsity tennis team with an eye to turning pro within a couple of years.

She was on the tennis court, playing doubles for her school when she felt pain in her right leg.

“My knee started hurting for no reason at all,” she said, “but my partner and I won the match.”

Two days later, at another match, the pain was worse, hampering her charges to the net. The next morning, she woke up in still greater pain. It hurt just to walk downstairs.

“The pain was increasing very quickly,” she said.

Her parents called on family friend F. James Funk, an orthopedist who worked with the Atlanta Falcons pro football team, and he squeezed Slaughter into his busy workload. He examined her and pointed out a lump at her right knee bone.

“I thought, what, where did that come from?” Slaughter recalled.

She underwent X-rays, a bone scan and a biopsy, in which a hollow needle was inserted into the bone to extract cells for examination.

“I have to say that was extremely painful,” she said.

Slaughter was kept in the hospital for a third day with Mom and Dad close by, fretting over her, their fifth little girl, the baby of the family.

“At that point I knew something wasn’t right,” she said. “…I said a big prayer to God, ‘Please let me back on the tennis court.’”

Mom and Dad fought back tears as they told Adrienne that the lump in her knee was a tumor.

The next morning they piled into the family car and drove to Shands Teaching Hospital at Gainesville, Florida, where the news would get worse. Six physicians were around her when they told her she had childhood bone cancer. They would have to operate.

“I asked, am I going to play tournament tennis again?” Slaughter recalled. “I wasn’t thinking of life or death, I was 14 years old. He said no. That’s when I started bawling and crying.”

A lost limb

Slaughter also was told that once they began operating, they might find that they would have to amputate her right leg. In a matter of days the lump had spread six inches down her shin.

“I went into surgery expecting that I would not lose my leg,” she said. “But something told me that it was not going to go as planned.”

She went under the knife, and woke up later that day, on a Monday afternoon, with a resident physician nearby.

“I opened my eyes and I said, did you amputate? He said yes, we did. I went back to sleep until Tuesday morning,” Slaughter said.

She started physical therapy the day after. A week after her surgery she celebrated her 15th birthday, with her parents, her boyfriend who flew in from Georgia, 150 presents and three cakes.

She found that her peers accepted her without a leg.

“That’s when I knew everything would be okay,” she said. “When you’re 14, you think you’re the only one in the world going through what you’re going through.”

In the weeks and months that followed, she underwent radiation therapy to attack any cancer that might have made its way to her lungs.

She returned home one month later, and hit tennis balls against a wall, hopping around on crutches. The baby of the family had gotten used to shagging balls for the rest of the family, but this occasion was different.

“It was sweet, because this time my dad was the ball boy,” she said.

She underwent chemotherapy, and lost her hair for a time. She found replacement tresses at Wig Villa, a cheapo place she found with her mom and just loved.

She learned to walk with a prosthetic leg, slowly trusting the weight of her body to a foreign object. When she was a senior, she modeled for Saks Fifth Avenue, with a prosthesis that looked in photos like her other leg.

As the years rolled by the prostheses would be improved, and she would move from clumsily articulated ones to today’s more fluid devices. She showed off her current artificial leg, with a microchip in the knee to “learn” her stride. With earlier models, she had to use her “little leg” to throw the prosthesis forward and then step down on it. Now she lifts her leg and the prosthesis moves forward in more leg-like fashion.

“And this one has a spankin’ awesome foot,” she said, pointing out a rotating ankle and what feels like “stronger shock absorbers.”

Attitude of gratitude

In her sophomore year of high school Slaughter began volunteering with the American Cancer Society. The next summer she spoke for the United Way at a high-profile 500-person gathering hosted by the Rotary Club in Atlanta, and realized that the wide smiles and teary eyes meant that public speaking was something she could do.

While she was attending the University of Virginia, Coca Cola flew her to Atlanta to speak to 700 executives of various types, along with basketball great Isiah Thomas, who she found to be warm and gracious.

“He was cool,” she said, “very cool.”

In September 2009 cancer came to Slaughter once again, but it was not a return of osteosarcoma. She was diagnosed with breast cancer, and underwent a double mastectomy followed by reconstructive surgery.

She said the breast cancer had its roots in the lung radiation treatment she received back in 1981, but in her usual way, she expressed gratitude for the radiation treatments.

“The radiation to my lungs may have been one of the reasons I lived,” she said.

She also is thankful for catching the breast cancer “at stage zero.”

“No chemo, no radiation,” she said. “I didn’t have to do that again.”

She now stresses the importance of mammograms, and says that men or women who received breast-area radiation treatments must be on the lookout for possible breast cancer as their lives progress.

For Slaughter, chronicling her cancer amounts to the creation of a decades-long gratitude list. She’s thankful for her family and friends, Dr. Funk and the rest of the physicians and hospitals, especially Little Company of Mary in Torrance.

She’s thankful that when osteosarcoma first showed up as a lump in her knee, it spread down her leg instead of upward, allowing surgeons to leave her with more than half of her right thigh intact, making prosthetic movement easier than it would have otherwise been.

“There were a lot of things in my favor. It could have been a lot worse,” she said.

Slaughter paid homage to numerous people who showed up to light her way, including a young woman named Noelle Fedora, a cancer survivor with a prosthetic leg who visited Adrienne in the hospital when she was a 14-year-old girl who had just lost one of her legs.

“This nursing student came to see me the day after my surgery, and I realized that I could be walking on a prosthesis like that,” Slaughter said. “And she had chemo, but she had beautiful hair, and I realized that my hair could grow back and I could look that pretty. I said hey, in five years I can be like her.”

Slaughter hopes that her experience can provide others with similar inspiration.

“I am proof that you can really live after having cancer,” she said.

“There’s nothing good about cancer, but it isn’t just a negative story,” she said. “I’ve had so many opportunities because of it.”

Slaughter summed up with her own twist on a well-worn proverb from the film “Forrest Gump.”

“Life is – I won’t say it’s a box of chocolates, but it pretty much is a bowl of cherries,” she said.

Paying it forward

Near the top of Slaughter’s gratitude list stands the Woman’s Club of Hermosa Beach, with whom she shares credit for launching the fundraiser “Adrienne’s Search for Children’s Cancer Cure.”

The fifth annual event, 5 p.m. Saturday, March 5 at the Hermosa Beach Kiwanis Hall, 2515 Valley Drive at the south end of Hermosa Valley Park, features Silvio’s Brazilian BBQ, arts and crafts for kids, Bud, wine and fresh margaritas from a cash bar, a silent auction, and live music by Michael Paul Morgan and the Rogues rock and blues band.

Cost is a $30 tax-deductible contribution, and tickets can be purchased through PayPal at womansclubofhermosabeach.org, or by calling 310-940-9200. This year’s event benefits the Jonathan Jaques Children’s Cancer Center at Miller Children’s Hospital, Long Beach. ER

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