Makenna Miller's Battle with a Rare Tumor

Makenna Miller (photo by Chris Stark, @starkphotoproductions)

A year ago, 12-year-old Makenna Miller was living every young dancer's dream: She was dedicated to training at The Loudoun School of Ballet in Leesburg, VA, and was becoming a consistently successful competition star. She's been the overall scholarship winner at conventions like NUVO and 24 Seven, and placed in the top 10 at the 2014 Dance Awards, in the top 8 at New York City Dance Alliance in 2014 and was last year's second runner-up for NYCDA's National Outstanding Dancer award. But a nagging pain in her knee led to a devastating diagnosis: She had a tumor, and it was most likely cancerous. Here's her harrowing—yet ultimately triumphant—story.

Last year, I started having an annoying pain in my left knee. I ignored it for a while and tried not to let it interfere with my dancing, but the pain kept getting worse. Soon, grand pliés were hurting a lot. At this point, Nationals were less than two months away, and the pain was constant. I was so frustrated—I'd planned to compete three solos at Nationals, and they all had to be re-choreographed because I couldn't bend my knee all the way or kneel. I cried a lot because I was working so hard, but my body just wouldn't do what I wanted it to.

After a rough week at Nationals, I took a break from dancing, hoping rest would help get me back to normal. When nothing changed—even physical therapy wasn't helping—I went to see a pediatric orthopedist. He was confused by my symptoms because I hadn't had a specific injury that would cause the level of pain I was having, or explain why I wasn't able to bend my knee. After X-rays didn't show any broken bones or fractures, he sent me for an MRI.

Less than an hour after my MRI, the orthopedist called my mom. The MRI showed a soft-tissue tumor attached at the joint behind my knee. My parents didn't tell me much about what was happening, but I noticed them whispering all the time. The orthopedist sent us to an oncologist at Children's National Medical Center in Washington, DC, after discovering the tumor, and what I didn't know at the time was that the oncologists believed there was a 90 percent chance my tumor was cancerous. They thought I had synovial sarcoma, which is a rare type of cancer—especially in children, and especially unusual in this part of the body. It was a terrible prognosis, and two days later, I was having surgery at Children's Hospital.

The doctors were able to remove the entire tumor, but since it turned out to be larger than they originally thought, they also had to remove a small piece of my calf muscle. I woke up in a lot of pain. My leg was in an immobilizer brace that went from the bottom of my calf to the middle of my thigh. Recovering from the surgery was so much harder than I thought it would be. I was bored at home and begged my mom to take me to the studio to see my friends and teachers.

We went to see the oncologist again the following week for a follow-up, and we got good news. The oncologist told us that after testing, they found out my tumor had actually been benign. I didn't have cancer! It was truly a miracle.

It's been about ten months now since my surgery, and I feel pretty close to normal. I've officially graduated from physical therapy, and I can bend my knee all the way, kneel down and sit back on my heels—which I hadn't been able to do for almost a year before my surgery. I have a scar on the back of my leg that I can't hide, but it'll fade in a couple years.

I'm so glad to be back doing what I love most. I competed for the first time at Youth America Grand Prix this past February, and after being on pointe for just four months—two months before my surgery and two months after my surgery—I placed second in my division in the classical and contemporary categories. I've also competed solos at NYCDA and I recently auditioned for the role of Clara in the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. I was named the national ambassador and spokesperson for iDance4aCURE, a nonprofit that raises money to fund research for childhood cancer. When I got my MRI results that day at the hospital, everything changed for my family—but I ended up being so lucky. I decided I needed to give back to those who haven't heard the same good news I received.

Dancer to Dancer
(From left) Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland (all photos by Erin Baiano)

Congratulations to Dance Spirit's 2019 Cover Model Search finalists: Darriel Johnakin, Diego Pasillas, and Emma Sutherland! One of them will win a spot on Dance Spirit's Fall 2019 cover. Learn more about the dancers on their profile pages, and then vote for your favorite below. You can vote once a day now through July 15.

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