Professional race car driver Cassie Gannis suffered from scoliosis as a child and teenager, going from a 15 percent curvature of the spine to more than 50 percent, even while wearing a brace. After several years, her doctors determined she would need corrective surgery. Always known for being an athlete and having a strong will, she was determined not to let scoliosis bring her down or dampen her dreams.
Scoliosis is an abnormal curvature of the spine. In most cases, the cause is unknown, but it usually starts in the preteen years and most commonly in girls. Treatment for scoliosis can include general monitoring as the child grows up, wearing a brace to correct the curve and corrective surgery. Many people are scared and confused when they hear the diagnosis. Parents often wonder if it means their child will have limited abilities or if the condition will continue to get worse.
This is the first of three posts about Cassie’s story, written for our #HealthBeat campaign. In Part I, Cassie tells us of her love for swimming as a child and how a diagnosis of scoliosis saddled her with a back brace that dashed her hopes of becoming a competitive swimmer.
Part 1: A life-changing diagnosis
Growing up in Arizona, I loved swimming and I was very good at it. In fact, I had been on a swim team since I was 5 years old. I seemed to be in the water more than out sometimes. I knew all the swimming strokes, and my best were the backstroke and breaststroke. I was well on my way to becoming a great competitive swimmer.
But at the age of 12, I seemed to always get disqualified for my touch. In the swim strokes I competed in, you had to touch with both hands. Every time, it was reach, whistle, disqualified. I swore I touched with both hands.
A scary test
A swim official decided to test me and really take a look at my touch. It was then that she noticed that as I approached the wall, my one shoulder was much higher than the other, causing me to touch unevenly. She happened to be a doctor and suggested that maybe I had a curvature of the spine. She told my mom I should be checked for scoliosis. It was the first time I’d heard the word!
My mom made an appointment with our pediatrician. I had X-rays and a CT scan. The X-rays were easy. The CT, not so much! Being put in a big tube was not my favorite moment! I was so scared. I remember they let my mom hold my hand as I was placed deeper into the tube. I had to hold still and had earphones on. In the tube I was good, because I had to be. But I was so very scared! I remember tears rolling down my cheeks and the back of my head getting wet.
It’s official: scoliosis
As I came out everyone told me how very brave I was, but I sure didn’t feel that way. And why did I feel like there was more to come! After we got the results back, it was official. At the age of 12, I was diagnosed with scoliosis. My curve was called a 15 percent left thoracic curve. I was told I would have to be fitted for and wear a back brace to try to prevent the curve from advancing.
So off to the brace maker we went. To be fitted for a brace you have to lie on a table and be wrapped in cold wet gauze. You have to lie still until the mixture dries. It is not an easy thing to do, nor is it very uncomfortable. A few weeks later, we picked up the brace. My back brace went from under my arms, up around to the front of my neck, back under my arms, then high again up my back. It was long enough to go past my hips.
Hiding my bulky brace
In the brace, I was unable to move that entire section of my back. It was so uncomfortable! Oh, and it wasn’t bad enough that it was uncomfortable – it was embarrassing, too! You could see it if I wore a regular shirt. I looked like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, only in a big white brace.
I decided to wear a sweatshirt all the time to conceal the ugly thing. I even wore a sweatshirt in 100 degree-plus desert heat! There was no way I was letting anyone see that thing.
Surgery becomes the only option
Over the years, I grew out of the brace and was fitted with a second one. Each time my family was told that in spite of the brace, my curve kept getting worse. I remember my mom crying during one visit and then I started to cry. It was a very scary time for me. You never see your parents cry, so I knew this was not going to be good.
Eventually, the braces didn’t help and I had progressed to a 50 percent left thoracic curve with rib hump. In photos you could see that my left shoulder was 4 inches higher than my right. You could actually see that my shoulders were off in photos. My spine specialist told us that my scoliosis had started to affect my heart and lung function, and surgery was now my only option. Wearing a brace was one thing, but actually hearing I had to have surgery was terrifying!
Stay tuned for part two of my scoliosis story.
Next, Part 2: Surgery and family at my side
You can learn more about scoliosis with these resources:
These earlier blog posts have tips for maintaining a healthy back:
Read this series
Providence is pleased to share the stories of great people who have overcome health conditions. As part of our population health program, we want to share insights and stories that help bring awareness to common health conditions. Not all the people featured in our stories are Providence patients.