Sierra Diller’s decision to have her right foot amputated last year was heavily influenced by what she’d learned on social media. Plagued for years by a noncancerous tumor that caused intense pain and limited her mobility, Diller found several young women in her general age range on YouTube and TikTok who documented how elective amputation freed them from chronic health challenges and improved their quality of life.
So when Diller decided once and for all to liberate herself from her right foot, it only seemed natural to chronicle the journey on TikTok. “I thought if I share my story, maybe I could reach one more person,” she says.
One more person? Hah. In the months leading up to her amputation on December 8, Diller’s videos (presented under the moniker “Hopalong Sierra”) routinely drew tens of thousands of viewers and occasionally topped 100K. But the segment she posted on the day of her surgery—captioned “And just like that, it’s gone!”—outdid them all. So far it has garnered more than 5 million views, and the tally’s still growing. People, the Daily Beast, and a handful of other mainstream media outlets picked up the story and further enlarged the audience. Before she’d even left the hospital, Diller (an Indiana resident in her late 20s) was a certified viral star.
Why does she think people find her story so compelling? “I think there are a lot of people who are dealing with all kinds of health issues who feel unheard and dismissed,” Diller says. “They’re not sure how they can have the quality of life that they want. You have to keep advocating for yourself, because nobody else knows how you’re feeling.”
Now roughly seven weeks post-amputation, Diller is back home and slowly regaining her mobility. In her most recent segment (posted four days ago) she revealed that she’s hit the pause button on walking while her prosthetist makes some adjustments to her device. She’s already driving again, she’ll be starting physical therapy soon, and in future episodes you might see Diller on skis or rollerblades. “I would just love to be able to do something simple, like taking my dog for a longer walk,” she laughs. We look forward to seeing that soon.
Our conversation has been edited for length and readability. Follow Diller on TikTok at @hopalong.sierra.
When you went into this, did you have any idea that your story was going to become national news?
No, I really just went into it thinking, I’ve never heard of anybody with this tumor before, so maybe there’s someone else out there that may be going through it who could use a little enlightenment from somebody with a good outlook on it. Because I know I’ve got a good outlook, I can laugh about just about anything. So I thought, let’s just share it and see what happens. I was never expecting it to blow up like that.
You were getting good traffic on your posts before it got picked up by national outlets. Some of those videos were getting tens of thousands of views. Do you have a sense of who those viewers were?
Honestly, it’s mostly people I’ve met through the For You page. I’ve had people from the UK that reached out, and I actually met one girl who has the same exact tumor as me, in the exact same place. She’s also in the UK. So I’m like, wow, this is a little crazy.
Forgive me, because I am the age of a dinosaur and I don’t really know TikTok. What is the “For You” page?
When you open up your TikTok, the main feed? That’s the For You page. It’s just the main page where people go if you want to endlessly scroll through videos. Based on the algorithm, and what videos you like and watch, that’s how videos get shown to people. You could put a simple hashtag in there sometimes, and it will show up on people’s pages. Or if you link to a specific audio, it could bring it up. There are lots of ways it can end up somewhere.
OK, got it. Thank you. So since your amputation-day video went viral, have you been hearing from different types of people?
Immediately after I put it up, I had a few people reach out who said, “I’ve been struggling with trying to get an amputation.” They may be going through chronic foot pain, and they’ve been dealing with it for so many years, and they’re trying to start the process of elective amputation, which I have been working on for many years. I’ve had people reach out and just kind of share their struggles, and I just try and encourage them any way I can. Because I definitely know what it feels like to be in that position. It feels very lonely to have doctors tell you, “That’s ridiculous,” when you have really considered all your options and reached the point that amputation is what you want.
At what point did you become convinced that amputation was the best option for you? How did you educate yourself about the option, and what pros and cons did you consider?
It started in graduate school. I wasn’t doing so great because I had to walk to class. And I was kind of like, “This cannot be my life forever.” At that time I had probably been dealing with it for eight or nine years. I knew there were people in the Paralympics running and doing incredible stuff with one leg, or no legs. I had two legs, and I was living the life of an old person. I could not do anything. It felt very unfair. But I didn’t want to live with this negative attitude, so I thought, “I’m gonna figure out what I can do about it.” So I started watching some other YouTubers. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen Footless Jo?
Oh sure. Everybody has seen Footless Jo.
I’ve been watching her content since, oh gosh, before TikTok—when she was just doing YouTube. She was sharing her story about how she was having to go through an elective amputation. Footless Jo is about my age, and she had to do all of this by herself. She tried everything, and amputation was maybe her last option. She went through with it, and she’s doing great. So that inspired me to keep looking into it and keep digging. She really is the reason I even decided to share my story, because she shared her story and it changed my life. So I thought if I share my story, maybe I could reach one more person.
It’s interesting to me that you mentioned the Paralympics as an influence. It sounds like they gave you the idea that you could actually be more active if you amputated the leg.
Yes, absolutely. And I’m not trying to be a Paralympic competitor. I would just love to be able to do something simple, like taking my dog for a longer walk or going for a run. I’ve never gone on a run in my life, because it’s wasn’t really possible with the way my foot was. These Paralympians are competing and running very long distances, and I thought, “That is so cool. They’re living their best life.” I wanted to have a chance at that.
Let’s get back to the interactions you had with your doctors. It sounds to me that not only did they dissuade you from elective amputation, but they did it in a dismissive tone.
Oh, 100 percent. Absolutely. I actually started seeking out doctors for this idea back in Florida, where I went to grad school. I started seeking out specialists and I was telling them the tumor was really starting to bother me again. And I explained my past and how the surgery I had when I was younger really did not work. So every time I saw a doctor, my attitude was: I’m in here for a permanent solution. I don’t want any more “Maybe this will work, maybe that will work.” I don’t want any more of that. I don’t want pain management, I want a permanent solution so I can live my life.
When I would ask if amputation is an option, a lot of them kind of laughed at me, for lack of better words. Their attitude was, “Why would we cut off a perfectly healthy foot?” And mine was, “I don’t know why you get the right to choose how my quality of life is gonna look based on your professional opinion of how healthy my foot is.”
Why were they characterizing it as a “perfectly healthy” foot? It really has never been healthy since your childhood, right?
Well, they think it’s healthy because it’s not cancerous. It’s not going to literally kill me. So that’s what they classified as healthy. And I do understand that medical perspective, but I didn’t think they should get to judge what’s right for me unless they were living in my shoes for the amount of time that I had to.
You’re more generous than I am. I don’t even get where they’re coming from to use the term “healthy.” “Non-life-threatening” I can accept. I’m curious what kind of doctors you were interacting with?
I’ve seen general surgeons, I’ve seen podiatrists, I’ve seen soft tissue specialists, I’ve seen neurologists, I’ve seen split specialists….
How many surgeries did you have on the foot prior to your amputation?
I had two surgeries. I had one when I was in sixth grade, and when they attempted to cut out the tumor, it just grew back bigger than its original size. So we very quickly realized maybe cutting it out is not a good idea, because it just makes it worse. So that’s why I avoided having surgery again for so long, until I met my current doctor. I want to give him full credit, because he is the real MVP of this whole thing. When I first met him, he also had the idea that maybe amputation is not the best idea. But he wasn’t super dismissive of it. He said, “I would like to try cutting it out one more time,” because he is very specialized in soft tissues and tumors. So he wanted to try, but he had the same kind of results as my first doctor. Then he brought up another option, which was sclerotherapy, injections into the tumor. He asked if I would try that. So I did, respecting him because he was being very respectful of what I was asking for. I did two rounds of injections, and neither worked at all. And then we both came to the conclusion that if I really wanted to live a normal life, amputation might be the best option I have left. So we went with that.
I like the way that you framed that—that there was a mutual respect there. It sounds like he was saying, “We have options that might let you keep your leg, so let’s try those before we take an irreversible step.” And you were willing to go along with his ideas, because he didn’t just wave your idea aside.
I felt very respected, and that was maybe the first time a doctor had ever made me feel like that. So I thought, “If you’re willing to not take [amputation] off the table, and you’re willing to hear me out, I’m willing to try what you want to do.”
When you reached the point that you were committed to amputating, what preparations did you make in terms of lining up support, educating yourself, buying mobility aids or whatever?
Before we committed, I wanted to take the time to get a therapist and make sure I’m mentally and emotionally ready to do this. I wanted to go into it with the best mindset possible, because the worst thing I could have done was to get it cut off and then have a negative reaction. So I think it was about six months from the time we decided on amputation to the time we actually scheduled it.
I also wanted to talk to my family and make them understand why I made the decision. They had seen this process happen over so many years, and nobody ever wanted it to get to this point. But it was helpful to educate them on how the process worked and how there were no more options left.
One other thing I did was learn to drive with my left foot to make sure my independence remained the best it could. I learned from a professional how to drive with a left-foot accelerator pedal, so I was well prepared to drive myself around post-amputation.
You mentioned you’ve never been able to run before. What are some of the other things you’re looking forward to doing—aside from just not being in pain, which is a lot?
Running is very high on the list. I’d love to learn to ski—I’ve never done that before. I’ve actually been watching Footless Jo learn to ski, which is very cool to watch. Maybe learning to rollerblade, because anything that requires a lot of balance and ankle strength was very challenging with my foot before. Maybe it sounds a little crazy to do that with only one foot, but I’m willing to try. I might fall on my butt, but I can get back up.