Western Michigan University student Hannah Pohlman isn’t certain what life path she’d like to pursue when she graduates next year.
After being diagnosed with cancer last summer, she’s just happy to be able to look forward.
As she pursued a degree in global and international studies at the Kalamazoo, Michigan, college, last June she felt an odd pain on the inside of her left knee.
“I kind of thought something was wrong because I didn’t remember hurting it or anything,” Hannah said. “I was a waitress and I would be limping after being on my feet a lot. Going from sitting to standing and going up stairs I would really favor my leg.”
An MRI illuminated a tumor.
Kalamazoo doctors sent Hannah to Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan, for further evaluation.
Joel Post, DO, a Spectrum Health Cancer Center orthopedic oncologist and surgeon, conducted a surgical biopsy. He confirmed the news Hannah wasn’t ready to hear. Cancer—telangiectatic osteosarcoma in her femur bone.
‘It was a shock’
Life took a sudden turn. She immediately dropped her college-student life and moved from WMU back to her family’s Traverse City, Michigan, home.
Planning for a future morphed into planning for the next medical appointment. Instead of hanging out with friends, she hung out with medical professionals.
The once-active volleyball player and sports-minded girl could no longer walk without pain. She felt terrified, as if traveling in a foreign land.
“It was a shock for a long time,” Hannah said. “I didn’t have any family members who went through cancer treatments so I didn’t know what to expect at all. It was pretty scary.”
Hannah said her doctors’ confidence helped buoy her hope.
“From the beginning, Dr. Post was very confident and very calm,” she said. “When I talked to Dr. (Deanna) Mitchell, she was really confident in the treatments I was going to be getting.”
Hannah said she wouldn’t let herself think about it not working, relapsing, anything but regaining full health and strength.
“Dying was never something I let cross my mind,” she said. “I just never even went there. I would just stay as busy as I could—I like to do craft projects, I love to read. Also, I was just always talking with my family about things and trying to be really open. I talked to them about anything I was feeling.”
Saving her leg
Hannah started chemotherapy on June 23 to shrink the tumor prior to a 14-hour long surgery in September.
The surgery, like her college major, had an element of “global.”
Dr. Post used a Stealth navigation system in Hannah’s limb salvage surgery, a type of GPS that assists accuracy.
During surgery, he inserted temporary pins into her femur bone.
“These pins, when connected to a mounted tracking device, allow us to precisely map her tumor and her own anatomy by performing a CT scan of her femur during surgery before we removed the tumor,” Dr. Post said.
This allowed him to visualize the tumor on a computer screen.
“This mapping allowed us to perform a safe and successful 3-Dimensional cut around her entire tumor while keeping her knee joint,” Dr. Post said.
He reconstructed her leg with cadaver bone, metal plates and screws, and worked with plastic surgeon Steven Naum, MD, to “borrow” from her own fibula to fill the gaps.
“We then put things back together with plates and screws in such a way that we did not have to replace her knee or perform an amputation,” he said.
Dr. Post said Hannah should have full use of her knee joint. He was right. She eclipsed expectations and walked by the end of November.
“She has regained motion and is working on strengthening,” he said. “She is hoping to rock climb this summer. We are holding off on running and impact activities until she is fully healed.”
Hannah underwent more chemotherapy after surgery, much of it inpatient, and finished in March.
‘Able to do more’
These days, she returns to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital for regular checkups. During her most recent appointment with Dr. Mitchell, Hannah sat on the exam table as a nurse flushed out her central line port with heparin.
Hannah’s face tightened into a grimace during the procedure, but broke into a smile when the nurse informed her this would be the last time she would have to endure a flush.
Dr. Mitchell entered the room. She and Hannah embraced.
“How’s your leg feeling?” Dr. Mitchell asked, examining the foot-long scar above Hannah’s left knee.
“It’s a little sore because I’ve been going to the gym, but not like painful,” Hannah told her. “In cardio, I can tell even the last couple of days I’ve been able to do more.”
With excitement in her voice, she tells Dr. Mitchell that she’s returning to school in a month, after visiting her boyfriend, Isaac, in the Dominican Republic for a week.
“Call me or send me a text if you’re running a fever while you’re there,” Dr. Mitchell tells her.
They discuss a nursing conference Hannah will be speaking at in two days. Dr. Mitchell encouraged her to not just talk about her medical history, but also how she had to quit school and move back home and only see the love of her life once during the cancer ordeal.
“This is a hard path to walk,” Dr. Mitchell told her. “That’s part of the story. I would like for the audience to see some of your positivity. I saw the painting you made for the ninth floor nurses. And I love the quote book you gave me. That’s like the nicest thing I’ve ever received.”
Dr. Mitchell is inspired by Hannah’s remarkable attitude of gratitude.
“Your ability to be gracious and grateful in life is something that will allow you to be happier than most of us,” she said. “That’s the key to a gratifying life. Somehow, at the age of 22, you’ve already captured what a lot of people don’t learn in a lifetime, and that’s to be grateful. If we just approach every day like that, what a huge gift.”
In some ways, Hannah and her family feel like they’ve been given a gift.
“It’s been complete shock and devastation to growing,” said Hannah’s dad, Dan, while waiting to see Dr. Mitchell. “We’re blessed and certainly don’t take for granted the outcome we’ve had.”
Dan said his daughter handled moving back home like she does everything else in life—with grace.
“She has handled it amazingly well,” he said. “What 22-year-old wants to spend that much time with her parents? She has been a superstar and very patient with all of us.”
The praise is reciprocal. Hannah said she couldn’t have made it through this journey without her family’s support—Dan, mom Kathy, siblings Kara and Merita and nephew Sage.
Dan even taught her swimming techniques to help her regain strength.
She lost about 25 percent of her quadricep muscle during surgery, but swimming, biking and other exercises have helped her body compensate.
After the appointment with Dr. Mitchell, Hannah planned to head to Kalamazoo for a few days to hang with her college roommates. After that, the trip to see Isaac, whom she met at Western Michigan University two years ago.
Because he was on a scholarship, Isaac had to return to his native Dominican Republic for two years after graduation. In one more year, he will be free to move back to Michigan to join Hannah.
“It was pretty bad timing,” Hannah said of her boyfriend’s move to the Dominican. “He moved home in March of last year and I was diagnosed in June. It was really hard in the beginning with him being gone. We Facetime and text a lot.”
Hannah’s hair has yet to grow back. She said she doesn’t mind being bald.
“I don’t care about the hair,” she said. “I just want my eyebrows back.”
There’s another bond that strengthened during Hannah’s trip home—her relationship with Benson, the family dog.
“When I first got sick, he was the only one that didn’t look at me like I was going to break,” Hannah said. “He didn’t know any different.”