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Every journey begins with a single step – An Airman’s story of resiliency (Part 1)

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

(This is part one of a series following an Airman through her cancer treatment and amputation)

This started as a story about an Airman fighting cancer, overcoming the odds, and returning to active duty. Unfortunately, stories about cancer are rarely so simple, and just when the finish line is in site, new challenges can present themselves.

Such is the case for Maj. Stephanie Proellochs, a Medical Service Corps (MSC) officer, who after a year of treatment and the amputation of her left foot, thought she was cancer-free in November. She was not. Her cancer had spread, and will require additional treatment. While this story had to change as a result, and the ultimate outcome is still in doubt, a few things have not changed. Proellochs’ drive to overcome her cancer, her commitment to rejoin her fellow Airmen, and her relentlessly sunny and positive attitude are all still present and stronger than ever.

Here is the first part of her story, about an Airman exhibiting strength and gratitude through the highs and lows of her treatment journey.

“Every journey begins with a single step,” read the Facebook caption under a picture of Maj. Stephanie Proellochs walking on a treadmill with a smile from ear-to-ear. 

Most Airmen usually are not excited about exercising on a treadmill, but Proellochs is not your average Airman. She is a recent amputee and this single step marks an important milestone on her road to recovery. Her journey highlights how patient-centered principles of Trusted Care help wounded, ill, and injured Airmen at all levels of care.

For Proellochs, who has been in the Air Force for 10 years, it all started in late 2015 with unbearable pain in her left foot. That began a yearlong quest to find the root of her pain, a journey that drastically changed her life.

“I started seeing doctors, being referred to specialists, and tests,” said Proellochs. “My healthcare team was determined to find answers to the cause of my pain and get me back to work.”

Her quest for answers led her to an orthopedic oncologist at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in November 2016.

“The first thing he said to me was, ‘You have a tumor in your foot and the next time I talk to you, I will be taking it out,’” said Proellochs. “They removed the tumor in December 2016.”

While most would be shocked at the thought of a tumor, Proellochs had some prior experience with a benign tumor in the same foot. She assumed that once doctors removed the tumor, her ordeal would be over.

However, in January 2017 she learned that her tumor was malignant and her foot needed to be amputated. Insisting on holding off on such a life-changing operation, Proellochs opted to undergo months of radiation therapy instead. By June, Proellochs thought she was healed and ready to go back to work.

Unfortunately, not long after she was back in combat boots, she noticed lumps in her upper thigh. In June, she discovered that her tumor was metastatic and had spread from her foot.

“It was at that point I said, ‘Take the foot’,” said Proellochs. “When I found out it was on the move, it was time for the foot to go.”

For anyone, an amputation of a limb is a life-altering experience and one that no one is prepared for. Fortunately, Proellochs’ husband and his experience working with amputees made the upcoming transition a bit easier.

“My husband, John, volunteers for a non-profit organization that is focused on working with wounded veterans who have disabilities like amputations,” says Proellochs. “He was familiar with life after amputations and conversations about what life would be like was common in our household. With the help of my husband and his experience, I felt prepared for it. And now he got his own amputee!”

Knowing life as an amputee would be different, Proellochs wanted to have one last “tour” with all ten of her toes. This motivated her to plan a “Farewell to Foot Tour” with her family.

“I wanted to put both of my feet in the sand one more time. My family, friends, and I planned a vacation to commemorate the last time I would be able to do this with my left foot. We all met up and took pictures of my ten toes in the sand and two feet in the water for the last time.”

In September, Proellochs underwent surgery to amputate her foot at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland. The procedure was a below-the-knee, trans-tibia amputation on her left leg. This type of procedure will give her a strong chance at regaining a functional limb, and enable her to return to an active lifestyle.

“After speaking with my healthcare team at Walter Reed, I felt comfortable moving forward with the amputation,” said Proellochs. “The team here has such an amazing reputation, so I knew I was in good hands.”

Proellochs’ strength, positive outlook, and, most of all, gratitude after amputation are impossible to ignore and drive her recovery.

“I have the ‘papercut’ of amputations. I only lost my left leg, so I can still drive,” explains Proellochs. “When you talk to other amputees with more severe injuries, it puts it all in perspective. I have spoken with patients who are quadruple amputees, making incredible recoveries. I look at my situation and think, ‘This is nothing! I just have a papercut!’”

Proellochs might describe her amputation as “just a papercut,” but facing such a life-changing event like this is a sign of her strength and her ability to stay focused on her recovery.

Continue to follow Proellochs’ journey here. The next part of her story brings to light her amazing support system, the impact this has had on her Air Force career, and her ability to use humor to face the more challenging moments of her treatment.