On March 10, 2011, almost five years ago, 9-year-old Gabi Shull was given a diagnosis that even the strongest of people hope to never hear – she had cancer. Osteosarcoma, a rare type of bone cancer most commonly found in teenage boys, was about to change her life and the lives of those around her in a way no one could have predicted. The life she had known was gone and her future was full of uncertainty.
At the time of her diagnosis, Gabi, along with her three sisters, had been dancing for many years at Center Stage Academy of the Performing Arts in Warrensburg, Missouri. Dance was her passion and she spent hours each week practicing and rehearsing with her friends. She was a member of the competition dance team and had built wonderful friendships with her fellow dancers. The presence of bone cancer in her leg threatened to take all of that away from her forever, but she was determined not to give up!
Gabi stoically underwent months of chemotherapy, enduring intense pain and sickness, surgeries and transfusions, fevers and hospitalizations, as well as unexpected complications, and bore it all with the quiet resolve that she would defeat the cancer. During this painful and discouraging time, her kindness and courageous, positive attitude inspired and uplifted everyone around her. The entire community cheered her on, and the bond she had with her dance friends and families became even stronger. She was not fighting this battle alone!
Her dance studio dedicated that spring’s annual recital to her and each dancer was given a ladybug sticker, Gabi’s symbol, to wear under their costumes in her support. The entire studio was united by Gabi’s strength and confidence and while she may not have been on the stage physically, she was performing through the steps of, and in the hearts of, every dancer on stage that night. To everyone’s excitement, Gabi was well enough to be in the audience that evening and her mom commented afterwards that, “Gabi was so happy! It was so wonderful for her to be there!”
Despite having survived all of the difficult chemo treatments, Gabi received the horrific news that she would still have to lose a part of her leg. She was devastated and scared dealing with the realization that her leg was going to be amputated and feared that she would never be able to dance again. At that point she could have easily admitted defeat, but her unyielding spirit shone through and she continued to fight with a renewed sense of determination.
That June, she and her family made the difficult decision to undergo rotationplasty, a radical and uncommon surgery that removed the mid portion of her right leg to include the knee, rotated the remaining healthy lower portion of her leg and reattached it at the thigh. Her ankle joint became her new knee joint. They knew the surgery would definitely change the course of her life, but were optimistic that this operation would help her to be able to run, jump and dance again. Fortunately, both the surgery and chemotherapy were a success, and while Gabi knew she still had a difficult road ahead of her, she was now ready and able to begin her new life and start her journey back to the stage!
At the end of October, she took her first steps with her new prosthetic leg using parallel bars and a walker. It was both exciting and extremely challenging at the same time. She wasn’t used to her new prosthetic leg and it was uncomfortable to wear. She had to learn to walk all over again and the process was exceedingly frustrating, exhausting and making visible progress was slow.
On January 30, 2012, the director of her dance studio called to ask if she would like to be included in the recital that spring. She enthusiastically said yes, and upon hanging up with her teacher, said, “Well, I guess I’d better start walking.” She decided it was time take her first steps without the aid of her crutches, and she did! She still needed the support of holding someone’s hands, but over the next few weeks she was relentless in her efforts to learn to walk unassisted. On March 12th her hard work paid off and she took her first steps on her new leg, completely on her own! She was chasing her dream to dance and nothing was going to stop her!
On June 1, 2012, less than a year after she had had her leg amputated, she accomplished her initial goal of returning to the stage! She began the performance in her wheelchair with the dance class she had been forced by cancer to leave, and at the end of the routine, positioned in the center of a straight line with all of the dancers holding hands, Gabi STOOD UP AND WALKED to the front of the stage, proving no obstacle would stand in her way!
In that beautiful moment, she touched every heart in every dancer and audience member and the pure feeling of love, hope and joy inspired by her courage and perseverance was incredible!
Now, at age 14, having been cancer free for almost 5 years, Gabi continues to make a tremendous impact on the world around her. She has been dancing with her prosthetic leg as a member of the Center Stage Company Dance team since 2013 and has recently had a special prosthetic pointe foot made which allows her to dance en pointe; something that only a few years ago seemed impossible!
Gabi is the National Spokesperson for The Truth 365 whose goal is to raise awareness for childhood cancer. She has spoken at many events, including CureFest in Washington DC, as an advocate for other children with cancer. Videos and pictures of her dancing on her prosthetic leg have gone viral on social media helping to spread her message and inspiring others to know they can overcome any obstacle. She knows that while she was lucky and has remained cancer free, many children are still fighting the battle and hopes her story will uplift and encourage them and others.
Recently, when asked to share with other dancers what inspires her and helps keep her going, Gabi replied, “Dance is what motivated me to walk again so I could eventually get back on stage. Even though dancing is different for me now than it was before, my passion for it will always remain the same!”