December 14, 2018

BY JOY STRUTHERS

Shannon Camilleri can’t believe how lucky she is.

She points at her new robotic leg, leaning against the wall in her Kitchener apartment, and laughs with delight. She had plugged it in to charge after she got home from work, just like she would her cellphone.

It isn’t quite finished yet. She hopes to get the top of it painted pink but she is pleased with the black limited edition carbon fibre that covers the lower unit.

Until now Camilleri has used crutches and other more basic prosthetics to get around. She first had what she calls a plain mechanical limb, where the knee would just lock and release. When hydraulics became available she was able to get a hydraulic knee which required less maintenance.

The Ottobock C-Leg 4 prosthetic knee will completely change Camilleri’s life.

“This leg is my first robotic leg … There is nothing that I can’t do,” she said. 

With this limb she can walk, exercise, dance, skate and even rock climb for the first time in over 34 years. She can use a remote control or the app on her phone to tell the limb what setting she wants it on, depending on the activity she wants to do.

The limb was about 93 per cent charged when she checked the app.

“It’s completely Bluetooth,” she said.

Camilleri is a cancer survivor who lost her leg when she was 11 years old.

Cancer was found in the bottom part of her left leg and she was given six months to live. Amputating the limb did not guarantee her survival.

“I was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, when I was 10 … Two days after my 11th birthday they did the amputation, in 1982. I had chemotherapy for eight months,” said Camilleri.

She remembers most of it, but still doesn’t understand where she got the strength to push though.

“I don’t know where the maturity came from,” Camilleri said. “I remember turning to my dad, because he was right beside me, and I cried for a few minutes. Then I was like OK, this is going to be done.”

When she woke up from her surgery, she tried to get up off the hospital bed and fell on the floor. She realized that she had to get herself up somehow, so she did.

“This is my reality,” said Camilleri. “Maybe falling flat on my face was a godsend.”

She smiles as she remembers, because she cherishes this memory. She made the choice to pull herself up so she could hop to the bathroom.

Camilleri was in remission for 22 months before the cancer came back. This time it was in her right lung. After having a portion of the lung removed and undergoing six months of chemotherapy, she was cancer-free.

“My whole battle was until just before I turned 14,” she said.

She started off as a champ in The War Amps Canada child amputee program, and ended up becoming a media consultant.

“I also used to do the ribbon cutting when they did the Great Ride for Cancer,” she said. “My dad and I would ride a tandem bike.”

Her father pushed her to try skiing, and she ended up competing in the Paralympics.

“The freedom you feel, and the breeze on your face when you’re going down that hill, there is just something about it,’ said Camilleri. “To me, I’m free. I can do this and there is nothing I can’t do.”

Next she decided to ride horses, and horseback riding and training became a big part of her life.

Now Camilleri is a successful, single woman who works to support herself. Her two children are grown and her daughter has two children, plus one on the way.

Losing her leg to cancer wasn’t her only struggle. She never thought she would be able to have children. In fact, the reproductive testing done by her doctors when she was young showed she would never be able to conceive.

Also, Camilleri lost her son’s father when she was just seven months pregnant. They were planning their wedding and their life together. He had heart problems and died of complications from mitral valve prolapse syndrome.

When her children were older she went to film school. Her studies were always important to her and became a way for her to escape as a teenager. High school was difficult because she was treated poorly and struggled with her identity.

“I got name-called every single day. I got called cancer-stick or peg leg. Every single day,” said Camilleri.

During the summer between grades 11 and 12 she tried to take her own life three times and ended up a patient at Joseph Brant Memorial Hospital in Burlington. She credits her parents for her recovery.

You would never know Camilleri was bullied from her positive attitude and outlook on life.

She was excited to show how she puts on her new robotic leg and how it works. She first slid a gel liner on her upper leg, then another smaller layer over it, and finally a rubber seal to keep her leg firmly in place.

She tests it a little tentatively at first, leaning her weight into it, then stands proudly and takes a few steps. She stands tall and straight and laughs with joy.

She can move around easily and stand firmly.

Camilleri works full-time at the front desk of The Walper Hotel and will be writing a hotel blog and the external and internal newsletters for staff. She is excited about her new writing position.

They kindly accommodate her at the hotel, but this leg will make her job a lot easier.

She loves staying busy and active and does whatever she can to live a healthy life.

She confessed she is the type of person who makes all her food fresh, and never eats frozen meals.

The microwave that is built into the darkly stained wooden cabinets in her kitchen is never used, except as a breadbox, and you can see the bread through the door.

The Canadian Cancer Society strongly recommends everyone live a healthy lifestyle, stay active, stop smoking and cut back on drinking alcohol.

Feb. 4 was World Cancer Day, which reminds everyone that there are many things they can do to support others as well as better their own lives, like making healthy choices.

Karen Griffiths from the Waterloo-Wellington office of the Canadian Cancer Society had quite a few suggestions.

“Tobacco reduction, from what I understand, would make the biggest difference on our cancer burden … because so much money goes to support people who already have lung cancer or tobacco-related diseases,” she said. “It would really reduce the cancer rate significantly.”

They are also promoting a campaign called Dry February that encourages people to stop drinking alcohol for the month and collect donations. Last year Dry February participants raised over $48,000.

Many people don’t realize that alcohol is one of the top three leading causes of cancer deaths worldwide. Alcohol ranks higher as a cause than pollution, stress and exposure to microwave ovens and cellphones.

“You don’t think about alcohol,” said Griffiths.

Some other ideas are talking to sports groups and arranging activities, or encouraging local restaurants to offer healthy choices on their menus to raise money and awareness.

Heels for Hope is a ladies’ night out in Waterloo at Maxwell’s Concerts and Events March 2. The tickets are $40 and the proceeds go to the Canadian Cancer Society.

People can get involved in the Daffodil Month Campaign in April, the Great Ride ‘n’ Stride April 30 at Conestoga College or the Relay for Life on June 16. There is also the mud run in September for women called Mudmoiselles.

Volunteers can get more information at cancer.ca or by calling the Canadian Cancer Society at 1-888-939-3333.

“We are always looking for volunteers. We are always looking for drivers and leadership volunteers,” said Griffiths.

They are extremely proud of the Wheels for Hope transportation program which helps cancer patients get to their appointments in Waterloo and Wellington regions.

There is also a peer support program and other help available for patients.

Griffiths wants people to know that survival rates are higher than ever before. With early detection and proper care and support people are living longer.

“It’s come a long way,” she said.

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