Without question, 12-year-old Delaney Unger’s main passion in life is dancing.
She’s known so since she was 3-year-old, with her favorite dance genres later becoming lyrical and jazz.
Nothing in this world was going to stop her from performing. Not even cancer.
That realization was too real for the Unger family when Delaney started experiencing knee pain at 11 years old.
The Selden family believed the pain to be sports-related, until they went for a checkup.
“She must’ve pulled a muscle,” her parents Noah and Melissa thought. “Maybe a stress fracture.”
But on Dec. 16, 2016, the family was hit with the unexpecting news. Delaney was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a rare bone cancer in her left femur.
From that moment on, the family’s lives would be changed forever.
“Our world will forever be classified as life before and after cancer,” said Melissa.
The Ungers soon visited Stony Brook Children’s Hospital, where oncology surgeon Dr. Fazel Khan explained to the family their three options.
Option One: A knee replacement, which would limit her mobility and lead to additional later-in-life surgeries.
Option Two: An above the knee amputation in which she would have to wear a prosthesis with no flexibility in the leg.
Option Three: A rare surgery called rotationplasty, where the surgeon would replace her knee with her ankle.
To make it work, the ankle needs to be rotated 180 degrees, then fused to the thigh bone.
This procedure, with the help of a brace, would give her the best opportunity for a high-impact life, doctors say.
After weighing the choices, the dedicated dancer knew exactly which option she wanted. She just had to get mom on board with the idea.
“When she turned to me in her hospital bed and said ‘I would rather try something and fail than never try it at all’ I knew it was the right choice,” said Melissa.
After three months of chemotherapy, Delaney was readied for the 13-hour procedure.
On April 5, 2017, Stony Brook’s team of doctors — Khan, Dr. Jason Ganz, and Dr. Nicholas Divaris — successfully removed the cancerous tumor and reconfigured the Selden Middle Schooler’s leg.
“It’s dramatic to look at because your toes are pointed backward and they’re up higher,” explained Khan. “But the beauty of that is you can now control [the] ankle like its a knee.”
After another four months of chemotherapy, Delaney began to re-learn how to walk, and of course, dance — all an unwavering brightness to her every step of the way.
Delaney learning how to walk with her new leg
— A Step Ahead (@A_Step_Ahead_PO) February 6, 2018
“All my patients inspire me but I’ve never seen someone at 11 years old be so inspiring and so courageous in all of this,” said Dr. Khan.
She quickly surpassed her rehabilitation expectations, and by January she was back at her second-home at Chorus Line Dance Studio in St. James.
That May she performed in her first dance recital post-operation.
“I just wanted to dance again,” said Delaney. “I’ve never done anything else in my life except dance.”
With the surgery, she has adjusted her dancing style.
“I used to be a righty, but now I am more flexible with my left leg,” she said, smiling.
As of August 2018, Delaney has gone an entire year cancer-free.
Through the entire process, Delaney said the support has been overwhelming, not just from her parents and twin brother Cameron, but all the staffers she’s gotten to know at Stony Brook.
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The hospital held a press conference on Monday to spotlight her story, while highlighting Childhood Cancer Awareness Month, which is in September.
“I hope by sharing my story I can maybe help other children who are going through what I did,” said Delaney.
And she has big goals for the future.
“I have been inspired me to become a pediatric oncologist,” she said. “I want to help other children do their treatments and want to research new treatments for cancer.”
Delaney showcased how she uses her new leg in front of several media outlets.