21-Year-Old Dance Major Continues Ballet Following Bone Cancer, Leg Amputation: 'I Never Gave Up'

Kara Skrubis, a dance major at the University of Buffalo tells PEOPLE about returning to ballet after her “devastating” battle with osteosarcoma

Ballet Dancer Kara Skrubis Continues Dance Following Bone Cancer, Amputation: ‘I Never Gave Up’
Photo: Lisa Skrubis

Kara Skrubis has had a passion for ballet since she was 3 years old, competing across the country and sharing dreams to teach the younger generation how to dance.

Now 21, the New York native tells PEOPLE that although she's always had a life purpose, that purpose has become more meaningful since overcoming a "devastating" battle with bone cancer.

In October 2019, Skrubis woke up one morning with a lot of pain in her left knee. As an 18-year-old freshman and dance major at the University of Buffalo, she was stressed out about the possible injury. But after a trip to an urgent care found no cause, she pushed through the pain and finished the semester.

It wasn't until Christmas break that year, when her pain continued, that Skrubis decided to visit an orthopedic doctor. She recalls feeling a "warm lump" on her knee that she assumed was a blood clot or bursitis.

However, an x-ray revealed the lump was actually a tumor, and in January 2020, Skrubis was diagnosed with a common bone cancer called osteosarcoma. Osteosarcoma usually affects teenagers and starts in areas where the bone grows quickly, such as the end of the leg, according to the American Cancer Society.

"When I was 13, my dad passed away unexpectedly and I kind of just had to come to terms with that and figure out how to cope," Skrubis tells PEOPLE. "And not to say that it prepared me, but it was kind of the same deal that this cancer was something devastating and totally unexpected and I just had to go in full force and take it from there."

Ballet Dancer Kara Skrubis Continues Dance Following Bone Cancer, Amputation: ‘I Never Gave Up’
Ethan Hulle

Treatment for osteosarcoma may include chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or, in Skrubis' case, an amputation. She began with chemotherapy shortly after her diagnosis and was then given the decision to either have a limb salvage surgery to remove the tumor or undergo an amputation.

"Chemo took a major toll on my body and, of course, having an amputation is very life changing. But I just wanted the tumor gone. I didn't want to do any more treatment," she explains. "I knew that many kids who had limb salvage surgeries, which is where they try to keep as much bone as they can, that they relapse. So I just said, 'Take it, make sure you get clear margins, I just want to be done with this.'"

Skrubis had her left leg amputated above the knee in April 2020 and was deemed cancer free. She finished treatment — in total, nine months of chemotherapy and eight months of immunotherapy — and was fitted for a prosthetic by the following September.

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Ballet Dancer Kara Skrubis Continues Dance Following Bone Cancer, Amputation: ‘I Never Gave Up’
Lisa Skrubis

During her stay in the hospital, Skrubis says her mother, Lisa, 54, found and connected with MIB Agents, a pediatric osteosarcoma nonprofit that provides resources, information and support to patients and families.

Not only was she able to get support from the organization during her own battle, but Skrubis — who is now the Junior Advisory Board President for MIB Agents — realized a new passion in supporting other kids with osteosarcoma as an advocate for patients and further research.

"While I was sitting in the hospital getting chemo pumped into my veins, I was able to do things to make it better for kids who were just getting diagnosed or who didn't know what was happening to them," she says.

"MIB Agents has really given me a space to share my voice," the dancer adds. "And now I'm studying to work as a child life specialist so that I can impact different lives in the hospital. Give them hope that there can be good outcomes and hopefully push for better research in the future."

Ballet Dancer Kara Skrubis Continues Dance Following Bone Cancer, Amputation: ‘I Never Gave Up’
Ethan Hulle

But Skrubis was also set on physically showing others like herself that it's possible to keep their dreams after an amputation.

Skrubis views her amputation as a positive outcome and admits that it surprisingly pushed her to return to being "so in tune with her body."

"I never gave up on believing that I would be able to dance again," she explains. "Growing up, I was extremely tall and didn't get a positive response from kids at school. So ballet was my way to reclaim that and a space where I can make my body feel beautiful no matter what anyone said."

"After my amputation, it's kind of the same way. I don't look the same as other 21-year-olds my age, but I can still make my body look beautiful, I can still do the things that other kids do," Skrubis tells PEOPLE. "Ballet is kind of my way of embracing my disability, showing that I'm not afraid to do anything that I want."

"I hope my story can show other children and young adults that their dreams do not have to end because of a devastating diagnosis like osteosarcoma."

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