Dani Urman plays through
Golfer, 16, lost part of her leg to cancer -- but not her resolve to return to the course
But instead of carrying her clubs, she was lugging the equipment necessary for her ongoing chemotherapy.
Dani was undergoing chemo for osteosarcoma, a bone cancer that is most common in teens. The cancer had attacked her left thigh bone and knee.
"I had to focus on golf, even if I couldn't play," says Dani, now 16 and a junior. "One time, coming home from chemo, I made my mom stop at a golf course just so I could get out and look at it."
Although Dani experienced knee pain off and on for three years -- doctors told her they were just growing pains -- she wasn't diagnosed until January 2010, when her limp was so bad that a doctor finally ordered an MRI. Her treatment started with four intense rounds of chemo blasted directly onto the tumor on her femur.
"I threw up four or five times every time I stood up," she remembers.
Then she underwent surgery in April 2010 to have the tumor, her whole knee and part of her femur removed; a titanium rod and other man-made components took the place of bone. Another round of chemo followed the surgery. Afterward, she needed crutches and physical therapy to learn to use her reconstructed left leg.
Dani had played soccer and basketball and done gymnastics and dance before trying golf, a sport favored by her father, Frank, and her twin brother, Max.
"I love that [golf's] so individual: Whether you play well or poorly, it's all on your shoulders," she says with a certainty and strength that belies her 5-foot-6, 105-pound body.
Golf actually relaxes her.
"Hitting balls puts me in a good mood," she says.
In order to get back to her sweet spot as soon as possible, she started her physical therapy during chemo.
“"It was more like stretching and walking from my parents' room to the TV room than physical therapy," she says with a laugh.
Coming home from chemo, I made my mom stop at a golf course just so I could look at it.” -- Dani Urman
Not wanting to repeat a year of school, she kept at her homework throughout her treatment, even though it seemed like her mind was functioning at a glacial pace.
"I had chemo brain," she says. "Tasks that used to take 10 minutes took me an hour."
Getting back on the golf course wasn't much easier. During her first time on a putting green, two months postsurgery, she fell over as soon as she put her crutches down.
"I hadn't put my full weight on my leg for so long, it was hard to trust it," she says.
A month after that outing, she played 18 holes with her dad and brother, undertaking a laborious procedure to get through a full round: have them drive the cart to the hole -- she got official permission to use a cart in competition -- use her crutches to walk to the tee box or ball, drop the crutches, hit the ball, pick up the crutches, get back in the cart.
School, chemo and a lack of energy kept her from practicing more, so with just that one putting session and round, Dani went into tryouts for her sophomore year.
"I didn't know what to expect from her," says Cherry Creek coach Bob Kubiak, "but she proved she was pretty close to the old Dani."
Because of the limited mobility and strength in her left leg, her swing had to be revised. But, Kubiak says, "She still hits it pretty far."
That distance, combined with an accurate short game, landed her in the No. 3 spot on Cherry Creek's competitive team.
During that spring 2011 season, her stamina was an issue.
"I'd get through 11 holes strongly, and then struggle with energy," Dani says. "One time Coach told me I looked like I was going to collapse," she remembers.
Did she pull out?
"Of course not. I finish what I start," she says with a smile.
As the season progressed, she got stronger; at the state championships she helped Cherry Creek take the title by shooting a 79, her best round of the year.
"Dani is one of the bravest kids I've ever worked with," says Kubiak, who expects her to be a key player for Cherry Creek next season.
Dani finally shed her crutches about 14 months after her surgery, but is still healing. She spends an hour a day riding a bike, climbing stairs or doing other physical therapy and is still slowed by a slight limp, which means she can't get to some classes on time.
"My teachers are cool with it," she says.
Her leg doesn't fully straighten yet, and she must do five minutes of stretching to get her limb ready to get out of bed -- a vast improvement over the 30 minutes it used to take.
Still, Dani -- who has worn a flower accessory in her hair since it grew back after chemo -- does not wallow in self-pity. She is focused on bigger things. Her immediate goal is to be able to walk, not ride, through tryouts next spring, and she has her sights set on competing in a sprint-distance triathlon next summer. She also intends to get more involved with Dani's Foundation, an organization founded by a Colorado family in memory of a daughter, also named Dani, who lost her battle with pediatric sarcoma.
"I'd love to put together a golf tournament for them," Dani says.
She also has her eye on college. She's not sure yet if she'll try to play golf beyond high school because she's planning on hitting the books hard.
"I've always wanted to be a doctor," she says, "and now I'm pretty sure I want to be a pediatric oncologist."
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