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Walton's Grace Bunke finding success in pool while keeping cancer in check

Marietta Daily Journal - 12/26/2017

MARIETTA - Grace Bunke said in a recent email, "I think I found running, but swimming found me. And I plan to just keep swimming until I can't swim another lap."

It is a sport that has become a passion for the 14-year-old Walton High School freshman, who has been fighting bone cancer for more than three years.

Once a cross country and track-and-field athlete, the disease has already taken away part of her left leg, and she has undergone multiple rounds of chemotherapy in attempt to beat it.

After wrapping up an antibody clinical trial in February, the cancer returned over the summer to the lungs and spine. From that point, it was not a potential cure she wanted to focus on, it was the quality of life.

"I knew it was going to keep coming back because once osteosarcoma keeps coming back, there is not cure for relapse," Bunke said. "That's when we wanted to keep it from spreading so I could keep doing what I wanted to do. I didn't want to be in the hospital. I wanted to keep going to school normally.

"I wanted to make sure that it was not just my decision (to focus on quality of life). I wanted to make sure that my mom and dad were OK with it. I wanted to check with my doctors to make sure it was a good idea. So they agreed, too. They are continuing to help me. They keep coming up with new ideas that keep working."

Bunke began swimming in August 2015 to get back in shape for running following chemotherapy treatments and joined Swim Atlanta. She said the practices were brutal at first but the thrill of competing in her first swim meet convinced her to permanently switch sports.

This fall, she has already met a few of her swimming goals.

One was to partake in Swim Across America in September, where she did a mile-long swim in Lake Lanier as part of a fundraiser to beat cancer. She raised $19,837 that went to the AFLAC Cancer Center.

A second was making the Walton swimming team. A utility swimmer whose strengths are the freestyle events, she is 1 second shy from qualifying for the Cobb County meet and only 3½ seconds away from qualifying for state.

"She's one of the most positive people I've ever met," Walton coach Ty Vernon said. "She has had so many things she had to overcome, so she is truly amazing. She is improving and is blowing me away with her maturity."

Of all the swimming goals she wanted to achieve, the most meaningful one occurred two weeks ago at the Cam-Am Open in Charlotte. She was welcomed to Team USA, an honor para-swimmers usually strive for.

Prior to the meet, fellow para-swimmer Hannah Aspden and her closest friend McClain Hermes presented Bunke with two U.S. caps.

"You have to make the team in order to get the caps, and it's something every swimmer dreams of," said Hermes, who is legally blind due to retinal detachments. "This was such a great moment because I know Grace's cancer is terminal. We've bonded together and have a close relationship, and by being around her, I can tell how she is feeling. This meet meant so much for both of us."

She went on to win the 200-meter freestyle at the Cam-Am and place second in the 50 freestyle.

Bunke had never swam a lap in her life three-and-a-half years earlier when she was finishing up her fifth grade year at Mt. Bethel. That's when she started feeling discomfort in her left knee.

Assuming it was just a pulled muscle, she figured that wearing a brace would solve the problem, but the pain would not subside.

The doctor diagnosed it as a dislocated knee cap, but the pain remained following a summer of physical therapy. When the knee started to swell just before she began sixth grade, Bunke could no longer dismiss the injury as routine.

Following an MRI and biopsy in August 2014, she was officially diagnosed with cancer after a tumor 17 centimeters long on her left femur was discovered. It was also found in her lungs.

"I never knew what cancer really was, so the biggest concern at this point was like, am I going to lose my hair and stuff?'" Bunke said. "I was so out of it that I didn't really know what was happening."

Her parents opted to share all the bad news in stages. First, they wanted her to get used to the fact she did have cancer. Then they had to break it to her that were going to have to perform major surgery on her leg.

"With osteosarcoma, you're dealing with two issues," her mother Vicki Bunke said. "One, your child has cancer and two, we're going to have to figure out what to do with her leg."

Grace Bunke was given three choices on how the surgery could be performed.

The first was to have limb sparing surgery where they would replace the diseased bone with a metal implant. The downside would be her leg would not be fully functional.

"I didn't want that, it was completely off the table," Bunke said. "The thing about limb salvage, it doesn't always work. Even if it does work, you can't go into the ocean. You can't run. All you can do is barely walk."

The second option was an above the knee amputation.

The third option, which she chose, was rotationplasty, which Vicki Bunke described as, "the most radical but the most functional." The diseased upper-portion of the leg would be amputated, then the healthy lower part of the leg is rotated 180 degrees. The foot faces the opposite direction and is attached to the remaining part of her femur. That allows her ankle joint to become her knee joint when wearing a prosthetic.

"Her dad and I wanted to choose this option, but we let her decide and we are very thankful that she chose it," Vicki Bunke said. "Grace swims without her prosthetic and it's a disadvantage against able-bodied swimmers."

Swimming the breaststroke is a challenge since the stroke calls for more leg work. When swimming the freestyle, she can kick her leg but it doesn't propel her like it does full-bodied swimmers.

Whatever shortcomings Grace Bunke may have in the water, she wants no special treatment from her coaches.

"It has been Grace's best wishes that I don't treat her any different than anybody else," Swim Atlanta coach Pat Eddy said. "I coach her through positive reinforcement and encouragement. The only difference are her cancer issues but we don't hold her back. If you see her swim, you wouldn't know that she as a disability."

On the block, Eddy has Bunke doing the track start where the back foot is behind the front foot, which helps her dive in the water quicker. When she makes her turns, he has her tucking more so she can use both feet to push off.

Once Bunke started swimming competitively fulltime in the fall of 2015, she qualified for the Cam Am Para-Swimming Championships in Canada the summer of 2016 and again in November when the meet came to Miami.

She was dealt a tough blow when the cancer returned in October of 2016. It required a third lung surgery, but she continued to swim through her antibody clinical trial.

When the cancer returned again in July, she underwent two sets of 13 radiation treatments and attempted an oral chemotherapy regimen. The oral chemo interfered with her ability to swim and she chose to halt treatment to avoid the nausea to be able to swim at full-strength.

Then came a major scare last month during Thanksgiving break when she began struggling to breathe. She was put back on oral chemo medication, and her breathing returned to normal. It has also allowed her to continue what she loves without any further ill effects.

Bunke is on schedule to swim in the Walton Senior Invite on Jan. 6, at the Central Aquatic Center, and at the Region 4AAAAAAA championships on Jan. 13.


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