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Living with Cancer: Peak Performer

At 9 he lost his leg. At 10 he took up skiing. At 22 he made the U.S. Paralympic team. But he triumphed long before that.

By Joshua Sundquist, Bridgewater, Virginia

As appeared in

I stood at the starting gate on the crest of the peak at the Torino, Italy, Olympic slalom course, feeling the icy wind cut through my racing suit. This is it, I thought. Far, far below in the crowd of 4,000 at the finish line stood my parents.

Back home in Virginia, relatives and friends were watching a live feed over the internet. The gate snapped open. I pushed off on my poles and crouched over the tip of my ski, rocketing toward the first gate.

That's right, my single ski. I'm missing my left leg. That's why I was here, competing in the 2006 Paralympics.

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When I was nine back in Bridgewater, Virginia, skiing was the last thing on my mind. I mean, we lived in the South, for crying out loud. My dream was to play soccer. I wanted to be Pele or Beckham.

I wanted to be like my Sunday school classmate Aaron who showed up at church one morning in green shorts, a matching jersey and knee-high socks instead of the white-collared shirt and scratchy dress pants I had to wear.

"I'm on a soccer team," he bragged. As soon as Sunday school was finished, I ran down all three flights of stairs to find my mom. "I want to play on a soccer team too," I said. "Can I, please, please, please?"

She gave the standard mom response: "We'll think about it." But then the pain started in my leg. I didn't make a big deal of it at first. I just bit my lip and said nothing. Mom had agreed to let me play soccer, and I wasn't going to let anything get in the way of opening day.

But my leg got to hurting so much I couldn't keep it from my parents any longer. "Probably just growing pains," Mom said. "Lots of kids have them."

I wasn't growing that fast. The pain got worse. They took me to the doctor, who said it looked like I had an infection in my leg—something that he could easily treat with surgery and medicine. "You'll be in a cast for a few weeks," he said. "Then you'll be fine."

I awoke from surgery, groggy and feeling very strange. Something wasn't right. I didn't know what, just that deep down inside I knew something terrible was wrong. I raised my head from the pillow to check my leg. No cast. Just bandages. What happened?

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The door opened and my parents walked in. Their eyes were red. Mom grabbed my hand. Dad sat down beside me. "Joshua, the doctors found cancer in your leg," Dad said.

I might have only been nine years old but I knew about cancer. People lost their hair when they had cancer and they were in the hospital for a long time. Sometimes they died. I burst into tears. Mom and Dad started crying too.

The doctor came in and explained in a quiet voice that I would have to have chemotherapy treatments for a year. It meant being on crutches and coming back to the hospital for a week every three weeks for treatments. It meant giving up the top bunk to my little brother, Matthew.

"Am I going to die?" I asked. He gave it to me straight. "You have a 50-50 chance of survival," he said. There were other things the doctor said, but I had stopped listening. Fifty-fifty. That's just a coin toss.

For the next three months I lived in constant pain—from the chemotherapy and the never-ending ache in my leg. One day I went to Mom. "I want you to shave off all my hair."

She looked at me quizzically, then her eyes filled up. She understood. I didn't want my hair falling out in clumps, finding more of it on the pillow every morning.

Josh has founded an online community for amputees, Lessthanfour.org. To order his book, Forty Voices, go to JoshSundquist.com.