At 11 years of age, Grace was an energetic 6th grader, an avid athlete and a kid who had big plans for her life.
“She enjoyed being adventurous and being outside and was just always on the go,” says her mom, Vicki Bunke.
In the spring of 2014, Grace started having knee pain. For months, she pushed through the pain until one track meet left her crossing the finish line in tears. A visit to the doctor confirmed that she had a dislocated kneecap. But the doctor also discovered something far worse: A large tumor was growing in her left femur, causing her kneecap to shift.
Unfortunately, the cancer had metastasized and spread to her lungs. Suddenly, the family of four — Vicki, Brian, Grace and Caroline, Grace’s younger sister — had their entire lives turned upside down. Grace underwent two surgeries to remove over 20 tumors in both her lungs, a rotationplasty and 18 rounds of chemotherapy.
The rotationplasty, which removed the tumor and part of her leg and reattached her foot backward to serve as a knee joint, allowed Grace to remain involved in activities and the sports she loved so much.
“It suited Grace’s personality and what she wanted out of life,” says Vicki.
According to Vicki, when Grace was not in the hospital getting treatment, she was at school, with friends or playing sports.
“Throughout it all, we took our lead from Grace. Prior to her diagnosis, we always were having to set limits and that didn’t change after her diagnosis. Her approach was just to live as normal a life as possible.”
Their community was a big part of Grace’s cancer journey. Her friends, classmates and teachers saw her lose her hair; go from crutches to a wheelchair to using her prosthetic leg; and celebrated with her when she was done with treatment.
“Everyone went through that journey with her,” says Vicki. “There was an incredible outpouring of support from everyone who knew Grace.”
A Newfound Love
After she finished treatment in April 2015, Grace was not strong enough to return to running. So, true to her active nature, she turned to swimming to get her strength back.
“It was supposed to be a rebound relationship, but she fell in love with it,” says Vicki. “Grace used to say that she found running but swimming found her.”
Grace excelled in swimming. She eventually gained enough strength to run with her prosthetic leg and was competing in both sports. Eventually, though, she had to choose between running and swimming because her packed schedule would not allow for both. She chose swimming, and every time she swam in a meet, Grace got faster.
“She never got in the pool and swam slower than she did the time before,” says Vicki. “Swimming is so different than running. I think it gave her spiritual kind of emotional strength. She found the water to be healing.”
In October 2016, the cancer came back, but Grace continued to swim. And when she was given a terminal diagnosis after a second relapse, she kept swimming, quickening her pace at each swim meet. She nearly made the Paralympic official swim team, missing by two hundredths of a second. Because she swam sick more than she swam healthy, the Paralympic team named her an honorary member. It was an award she cherished.
Her love for swimming helped inspire her to get involved with Swim Across America (SAA), a non-profit that hosts charity races across the country to raise money for cancer research. Grace swam in one SAA event to help beat cancers like hers.
Swimming in Grace’s honor
Before she passed away on March 25, 2018, one day before her 15th birthday, Grace asked her mom to finish a SAA event that she had planned to swim. Vicki instantly agreed.
“I’m not a swimmer but, of course, if your child has asked you to swim in their place, you figure out how to do it.”
Since then, Vicki, who hopes to raise osteosarcoma awareness, has participated in SAA events all over the country, swimming in honor of her daughter. She had the idea of swimming in 14 open water charity events with Swim Across America to honor Grace’s 14 years of life. She called it the Amazing Grace Swim Across America tour.
Grace’s death is a devastating loss that her family will always take with them. Swimming in the SAA events has been a way for Vicki to stay bonded with Grace and hopefully make a difference for another family or another patient living with cancer.
“Grace and I never got to swim together, but I always feel connected to her when I’m swimming,” says Vicki. “Like she’s right there with me. Grace left us a legacy. And so I guess I’m carrying her swim cap forward.”
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