Turning a cancer diagnosis into a chance to help others

Virginia (photo credit Catherine Morris)

Virginia-Finigan Carter has a knack for turning things around.

At 13 years old, she fought through leg pain while preparing for a state gymnastics competition. “I felt a pain in my knee, but I didn’t tell my mother until afterwards because I wanted to compete,” says Virginia.

What she didn’t realize at the time was that her strength and perseverance through the pain would serve her well over the next few years, for a completely different reason.

After explaining the pain during a doctor’s visit, her primary care provider referred her to a local hospital to make sure nothing was torn. While her MRI scan didn’t show a tear, it indicated that Virginia had a cancerous bone tumor called osteosarcoma.

She was quickly referred to Megan Anderson, MD, attending orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital’s Bone Program, who understood that Virginia wanted to focus on what she could do, rather than what she couldn’t do.

Megan Anderson, MD

Virginia asked Anderson about all her options and learned about amputation rotationplasty and various methods for limb salvaging. “She was clearly very driven, vivacious and mature in her decision-making,” says Anderson. “In the end, she didn’t want to lose her leg, so she consciously made the decision go through surgery and to permanently give up gymnastics.”

Sad but not defeated, Virginia quickly began the process of chemotherapy to reduce the tumor as much as possible before surgery.  She knew that chemo would be stressful and taxing, but approached it with as much positive initiative as possible.

Virginia’s friends with pink hair

“Since I knew I would eventually lose my hair, I let my friend cut it and dye it bright pink,” she says. In a show of solidarity and support, one by one, her friends began dyeing a stripe of their hair pink too. Gradually, distant acquaintances, boys and even teachers were joining in. “It was amazing,” she remembers.

Soon it was time for limb-salvage surgery during which Anderson completely removed Virginia’s tumor and the surrounding bone and muscle. “Then we fused a metal rod into the remaining part of her femur, and a piece of metal that replaces the femur connected through a hinge through her tibia to recreate the knee,” Anderson explains.

After surgery, Virginia still needed to stay strong and fight through six more rounds of chemo and a painful setback—the metal rod inside her leg had come loose as she entered her freshman year of high school, and she required another surgery to fix it. “All of freshman year was hard. I was trying to meet new people on crutches and with short hair,” she says. “It wasn’t until sophomore year that I had my first introduction to being a regular teenager.”

“Of course I was sad, as gymnastics was my life, but I found other things that make me happy,” says Virginia.

Virginia helped one patient turn a personal design into this bag

Because gymnastics was no longer possible, Virginia rediscovered her passion for fashion. As a tribute to her journey, she received a unique pillowcase for every night she spent in the hospital and is using the fabric to create dresses and quilts.

“While I was in treatment at the hospital, I continually needed to find the silver lining, so I used my interest in art and fashion to create things and feel productive while I was there,” she says. Now, Virginia is starting an organization that will bring this initiative to kids and teens in nearby hospitals.

“It’s hard for teens to be in the hospital while they’re trying to figure out who they are,” she says. “It’s such a weird time, and I want to give them creative outlets to express themselves and have something that represents their journey.” She’s starting small at a hospital near her home and turning kids’ and teens’ drawings into fabric-printed pillows, wrapping paper and bags.

Virginia’s dress design, showcased at a fashion show

She doesn’t plan on stopping there. Now a junior in high school, Virginia is applying to colleges that offer both fashion programs and medical schools, so she can continue to bring joy to young patients wherever she goes.

Virginia’s life changed when she was diagnosed with cancer. Now, she’s intent on changing the lives of others. “She is this very altruistic person who thinks about others even during a very trying time,” says Anderson. “She’s going to do wonderful things in this world, I know it.”