J member fights sarcoma with swimming, a little help from friends

Melissa Draut with her husband, Ken, and her dog, Loki. (photo provided by Melissa Draut)

When Melissa Draut first felt that pain in her hip, she thought it was just a muscle ache from a yoga or pilates class.
It took her several months of physical therapy and pushing her doctors for answers learn the truth: cancer.
“Some days, I was hardly able to walk,” she said. “I remember going to a conference for work out of town, and I couldn’t sit through it. I couldn’t sit for long because I literally had a pain in the butt. Nobody could figure it out.”
The pain, she recalled, would shoot down her leg, “It cleverly disguised itself as sciatica.”
She went to pain doctors who did epidurals and other sciatica treatments; nothing helped.
Finally, she pushed for an MRI of her hip, which showed a four-inch sarcoma tumor. Luckily, it hadn’t spread to her bones or organs, so doctors could remove it, though the surgery was severe, cutting into her muscles.
“That’s why I don’t walk pretty anymore,” she said. “But I’m alive.”
But she can raise money. More on that later.
According to the National Foundation for Cancer Research, sarcomas are cancers that start in bone, muscle, connective tissue, blood vessels or fat. They can be found anywhere in the body.
About 12,000 cases of soft tissue sarcomas and 3,000 cases of bone cancers are diagnosed annually. The overall five-year survival rate is about 50 percent. Draut has survived five years.
She has had an amazing group of friends who have helped her through this tough time in her life, including staff and members of The J, where she has been a member for years, swimming, taking yoga and pilates classes.
“I swam up until the day before my surgery because I knew it was going be a while before I could get back in the pool,” she said.
The surgery took a while to recover from, but after several months, she was back in the pool with the help of friends with whom she has swum for years, Lynn Tasman and Laura Melon. Melon gave her rides because she couldn’t drive yet, and Tasman helped her get on her swimsuit.
At first, Draut could hardly swim one length of the pool. Aquatics Director Johnny Kimberlin helped her find the right equipment to strengthen her legs.
“I distinctly remember my doctor saying, ‘You know, you’re going to walk different and maybe with a cane or something,’ but I don’t use a cane. I use a walking stick, you know, hiking sticks looks much better.”
The doctor also told her “‘But you’re never going to do the breaststroke again.’ I said, ‘We’ll see about that.’”
Of course, she does the breaststroke just fine now.
She also raises money pretty well.
Eventually, Draut found people who had survived sarcoma with the help of a support group at Gilda’s Club. She and some friends in the group wanted to do a walk for the Sarcoma Foundation of America, but there wasn’t one here in Louisville. Such events tend to be in large markets where there are big cancer centers, so the friends did a virtual walk, where they raised money and walked on their own.
Draut couldn’t walk, but she raised money. In 2017, she raised more than anyone else in the United States, she said.
Then the ladies decided to host a run in Louisville – well, the other ladies, not Draut.
“I was like, ‘That sounds terrible right now! You got a disease that’s only 1 percent (of cancers). Nobody knows about it, half of us are sick or having recurrences. We can’t pull anything like that off!’ Well, never to listen to me!”
They pulled it off. The Race to Cure Sarcoma was Aug. 17 at the Louisville Zoo, and it was the largest, best attended inaugural race of any city in America with 1,500 walkers and runners. It raised $142,998.
Because Draut can’t walk very far – her uneven gait causes pain in other parts of her body – she went to the place she knew she could find walkers and runners – the J.
Membership Associate Kathleen Horn allowed her to put signs up for the race, and her swimming friends rallied for her. Horn and her mother ran in the race, too.
“I was like, ‘I can’t do that,’ but my J people sure did,” Draut said.
Draut’s supportive family and friends helped her through a difficult time. But the J helped her get back to doing the things she loves.
She’s doing yoga again, though she was hesitant at first. Afraid she would fall over because her leg might not hold her, she enlisted the help of instructors, who gave her modifications and helped her feel more confident.
“I remember the first couple times when I was there with Stephanie, I would just fall over, and I knew where to put my limits,” she said. They were just so supportive. I love going over there to get my yoga fix, and so I feel pretty confident — I can go to that class and feel OK.”

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