TODAY | September 23, 2010
MEREDITH VIEIRA, co-host: Meanwhile, let us begin this half-hour with an amazing story, a pregnant woman whose lower body had to be cut in half to survive what was an untreatable cancer. Tamron Hall is here with details. Tamron , good morning to you.
TAMRON HALL reporting: Good morning, Meredith . Janith -- Janis Ollson was 31 years old and pregnant when doctors told her she had a rare form of bone cancer . Her only shot at life, a risky surgery with major consequences. Doctors at the Mayo Clinic performed the groundbreaking procedure, documenting Ollson 's story with video provided to NBC News . Janis Ollson is a mother of two with a survivor's story. Three years ago she was pregnant with her second child and started having back pain.
Ms. JANIS OLLSON (Cancer Survivor): Pretty cruel, pretty brutal pain. It started out like I guess what probably a lot of people have in pregnancy, but it got worse very, very quickly.
HALL: She went to see doctors in her native Canada. The news was shocking: Janis had untreatable bone cancer in her pelvis , a tumor the size of a woman's
hand. Even more shocking: doctors said the only way to get the tumor was to cut off the lower part of her body and put her back together again. The risk was enormous. Janis would lose one of her legs and there was no guarantee her remaining leg would be OK.
Ms. OLLSON: Their goal was, you know, for me to survive to see my babies grow.
HALL: The surgery could not be done while Janis was pregnant, so she had her baby delivered early by C-section . Her son Leland was born healthy, but Janis still had a tough road ahead. Her family traveled from Canada to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota . There a team practiced the procedure on cadavers.
Dr. MICHAEL YASEMSKI (Mayo Clinic): My colleagues and I went to the anatomy lab and designed this reconstruction, and she was the first person we tried it on.
HALL: Doctors called the pelvic reconstruction pogo stick rebuild. It's performed in two separate operations. During the first procedure the surgical team removed Janis 's left leg, half of her pelvis where the tumor was located, her tailbone, and part of her lower spine. In the second operation they took the top portion of the leg that was removed, rotated it, and secured it to her pelvis . Then they shifted her right leg and pelvis and attached it to her spine. The cancer removed, Janis was able to keep her right leg. But she's had to learn new ways to get around.
Ms. OLLSON: I'm in the wheelchair most of the time when I'm at home.
HALL: She has a prosthetic leg for her left side and even goes snowmobiling with her family.
Ms. OLLSON: I'm driving, so that's a sign of my rehabilitation.
HALL: Janis is cancer-free and looking forward to a long and fulfilling life.
Ms. OLLSON: If it wasn't for the Mayo Clinic , I wouldn't be here today and my baby wouldn't know me and my four-year-old would have forgotten me by now.
HALL: Wow. Well, Janis knows there is a chance her cancer can come back, but right now she's living a healthy, happy life . Meredith :
VIEIRA: Thank you, Tamron Hall , very much. Nancy Snyderman is NBC 's chief medical editor. Nancy , good morning to you.
Dr. NANCY SNYDERMAN reporting: Hey, Meredith .
VIEIRA: You talked to Janis ...
SNYDERMAN: I did.
VIEIRA: ...the woman who went through this ordeal, last night. How is she doing?
SNYDERMAN: I spoke with her last night. She sounds terrific. She's three and a half years out. She's very much a realist. But she said she knew this was going to be a big surgery, but because she has kids at home she said, 'Look, there's no option. I'm a mom. I'm willing to go to the Mayo Clinic . I'm willing for them to do something they have not done before.'
VIEIRA: They'd never done this except on a cadaver before.
SNYDERMAN: That's right . They had to go back to the cadaver lab to figure it out. You know, the pelvis is a funny, bony structure. You don't think about it. It's what our babies pass through when we have children and it's what our legs attach to. But it's not a bone you normally think of. But if you take away half of it, which they had to do, it destabilizes the whole lower body. So the idea that they took a piece of the amputated leg and sort of put it back in to sort of anchor...
VIEIRA: That's the pogo stick ?
SNYDERMAN: That's the pogo stick part. To really sort of reanchor this. I mean, the fact that this piece coming out right now, that part is the lower spine, really means that her right pelvis has nothing to attach itself to. So you have a spine and a right leg and nothing. This piece of bone they've just reinserted allows the pelvis to be sort of fused to the lower spine.
VIEIRA: To the spine.
SNYDERMAN: So her right leg had to be moved in a little bit. When that happened she had some nerve damage to her leg. But this, I mean, at least gives her some stability. This is a partially functioning right leg. She can bend it at the knee. It does have some areas of numbness. It functions reasonably well. And then when she puts the prosthesis on, that sort of big bucket you saw...
VIEIRA: Yeah, that's -- right.
SNYDERMAN: ...it gives her two pieces, two legs to at least balance on. She can move with crutches. She prefers a walker. But around the house she really stays in a wheelchair most of the time.
VIEIRA: And how risky was that surgery for her?
SNYDERMAN: Well, the riskiness of it is it's a big surgery. I think the headlines have sort of said, you know, woman cut in half like Houdini . What they really did was they took out half of her lower body. So the risk is it's really never been done before. It's a huge surgery. But what every surgeon will tell you is we can take out anything. The real challenge is how do you put somebody back together? And that's what makes this novel, and that's what makes this so courageous. It's -- she has a chondrosarcoma, which means it's an aggressive tumor of the bone. They're going to still follow her very, very carefully at the Mayo Clinic . But it allows this woman to, one, have a life; two, reclaim her ambulation to the best of her ability. And it is very brave on the part of the doctors and shows you that when...
VIEIRA: And on her part, too. Yeah.
SNYDERMAN: ...they both trust each other what can be done.
SNYDERMAN: Absolutely. This is a real leap of faith on her part.
VIEIRA: Yeah. Well, she wanted to be there for her kids, as she said, and she...
SNYDERMAN: Yeah, she's a really cool woman.
VIEIRA: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
SNYDERMAN: You're going to enjoy meeting her. Yeah.
VIEIRA: And we'll just be seeing her tomorrow.