Jess Quinn lost her leg to cancer as a 9-year-old. In her early teens, she went years without wearing shorts. Today, at 25, the fashion school graduate is a social media influencer, blogger and brand ambassador living in Auckland, inspiring followers acro
Iwas outside one day playing with my older sister in our backyard and thought I’d show off a little bit and stand on a soccer ball. I lost my balance, heard a snap, and fell to the ground screaming. It turned out I’d broken my femur. I was rushed into surgery to fix the break. That whole period’s quite blurry to me. I remember being like: “Oh, six weeks in plaster – this is hell.” I was super athletic and just wanted to get back into that.
I started rehab and my leg just wasn’t really healing. I could walk but I was in a lot of pain. They put me through a series of tests. And they found a tumour in my femur, which is what had caused it to break.
The cancer was quite far along and because of the break, the risk of it having spread was quite high. I was rushed back into hospital and pretty much immediately started chemo. The chemo wasn’t shrinking my cancer, so the decision was made to amputate my leg. My surgery was booked in for mid-October of 2001.
When you’re that young, you don’t understand the implications of what you’re going through. Obviously I knew I was really sick. But I guess when you’re a kid, you’re living day by day. You’re like: “Ugh, I’m vomiting again,” as opposed to: “Ugh, I’ve got cancer.” I feel like it would have been much harder for my parents. It was the same when I was told I was losing my leg. It wasn’t until later in life that the implications hit me.
My surgery options were quite limited – a full disarticulation, which would have seen my leg gone from as high up my hip socket as possible. Getting a prosthetic is really difficult, because you don’t have a lot to attach it to. A lot of people in that situation end up in a wheelchair. The other option was a really rare surgery called a rotationplasty. I was, I think, the first successful one in New Zealand.
After the surgery, I was in ICU for quite some time. Once my immune system was strong enough, I did more chemo. Christmas Day of 2001, things got really bad – my immune system was so low. I was in hospital over Christmas. From there, I don’t remember a lot. Things just started to improve. From what we could see, the cancer had gone. I had my last day of chemo – that’s always a big party at the hospital – and went home and progressed back into life. That’s how I see it but I’m sure it was probably a bit less seamless than I make it sound.
I was super excited to get my first prosthetic. It’s the naivete of a child, but it was like: “Oh well, I’ve lost that leg but I’m getting a new one, I’ll jump up and off I’ll go.” I was on crutches for a couple of years while I was learning to walk. There was a lot of back and forward figuring out how to make a prosthetic for this kind of surgery. The first three to five years, I had constant blistering, was in and out of hospital, and was kept under really close watch, as all cancer patients are.
I definitely wasn’t treated any differently at school – people were probably overly nice to me [laughs]. I’m not one for sympathy and I probably got more than I needed. In that period, I didn’t get back into any sports. Walking, for me, was hard enough. For years and years I’d sit on the sidelines in PE, but I was always a happy kid. When I got to college I started joining in with the things I could do. I was trialling for netball teams, doing goal shoot, so I wouldn’t have to run. It got to the point where I was always put in the bottom team even though I could shoot a ball really well. That started to do my head in, so I gave that up. That’s about the time I found my love of the gym and I could just go in, figure out the things I could and couldn’t do.
It got to a point where I could do everything except run. So I decided to order a blade prosthetic.
I’ve had my blade for about three years and it took about a year to actually get used to it – it doesn’t feel like a leg at all. It’s springy and unstable… I worked with a trainer for about six months to figure out the running motion. I’m still not at the stage where I can go for a run on the street but I’ll do a little jog to go and fill up my water bottle. It sounds so stupid but to me, just those little things... I was with my friends at that pink bridge in Auckland [the Light Path]. It started bucketing down with rain and they started running ahead and I had my blade on and I realised, I can run!
It was in my teenage years that it really hit home. You’re at an age where you’re going through body image and other issues anyway, and on top of that, I had lost my leg and it looked very weird and I was just really understanding the implications it was going to have on my future: “OK, s..., I’ve got no leg. Forever.”
For eight years I didn’t wear anything shorter than my knee. We’d go to Fiji on family holidays and I’d be in high-top sneakers and denim knee-length shorts, absolutely sweating. At school I was getting my skirt lengthened – not shortened as all the other girls were. My mum would pick me up and if we were going to the mall I’d ask her to bring me some trackpants, saying I was cold when I wasn’t, but I just wanted to hide.
The nature of my surgery [means my leg’s] super skinny – my thigh area wasn’t the same size as my other thigh. Every time I would go out I would wrap T-shirts and socks and jumpers and everything I could find around that thigh area, using masking tape to look like I had a thigh. I’d take it off at night and start again the next day. My dad eventually found someone who could make a sleeve that would look like a thigh, which was great. I started to become more confident.
I was at a friend’s place and she wanted me to borrow a pair of her shorts. I was so nervous, I don’t know why – these are my closest friends and they all know what I’d gone through – but I put on these shorts and I remember feeling so free. It was the weirdest thing. Now I just wear what every girl wears whenever I want.
Ever since then, I was confident in my appearance but something I’ve realised now is, it was just to a degree. I was confident because my prosthetic looked quite real.
When I got my blade I was really nervous, because the blade obviously has no chance of looking like a leg. I thought I’d be conscious of everyone looking at me but I had the opposite reaction – I felt so free I wasn’t hiding something. It was like: “Wow that’s cool,” or: “Wow, that girl’s got no leg,” instead of: “I wonder why she’s limping?”
I get so many messages. I had a guy message me saying: “I was so over it, couldn’t do it any more, then I came across your page.” Or they say: “I didn’t want to go to the gym today, then I saw you were at the gym.”
I get a lot of girls messaging me – whether they’ve had a surgery and it’s left a scar they don’t like or even just an everyday body insecurity, They’ll say: “You’ve given me hope that if you can be confident in your insecurity, I can, too.”
I do consider myself quite lucky to have gone through what I went through at such a young age. I didn’t see any other option than bouncing back.
When I’m in my everyday leg, which is very lifelike, you wouldn’t know except for the fact I limp a little bit. In that leg, I’m just me and half the time I almost forget I don’t have a leg. In my blade I’m kind of this athlete and I can – or at least, I believe I can – do anything I want. I can run across the road if a car was coming. I have all these movements I don’t have in my normal leg.
I’ve got a third leg which I don’t wear as often, which is my swimming leg. It had a standard cover on it and I’ve never liked it, because it looks ugly. I’ve recently stripped that leg back to just a pole. I want to create something in that space instead of it pretending to look like a leg when it’s not.
They’re all different and also bring out different sides of me, or give me different abilities.
A lot of people ask me what I cannot do and literally the only thing is ride a bike, because I can’t bend to make the pedal go round. Everything else I believe is a matter of mindset.
“Amputees have this thing where, you’ve got a leg but it’s not your leg, it’s this plastic skin and it doesn’t feel like your own. So I worked with [artist] Andrew Steel and he did a whole lot of artwork that was all personal to me on the blade [using the Samsung Note 8]. He sat me down and I was basically telling him my whole life, and he was sketching little icons that came into his mind. I love cooking and I love health and boxing. I was kind of like getting a tattoo, really. It’s a piece that represents me.”
On track: Jess Quinn isn’t up to sprinting yet, but says she can “do a little jog”.