Teen with 30% chance of survival cured following groundbreaking cancer therapy

Teen with 30% chance of survival cured following groundbreaking cancer therapy

Emily Whitehead was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2010.

At the age of 5, Emily Whitehead's life changed after she was diagnosed with cancer. In 2010, the then preschooler had undergone an annual health checkup in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania, which came out clean. "Everything was great," recalled her mother Kari, 46. But a week later, she noticed bruises on all over her daughter's body including her back and stomach, according to Daily Mail.

Soon Emily's gums began bleeding and she would wake up in the middle of the night in excruciating pain. On Googling the symptoms Kari learned that "they were the classic signs of leukemia" and thus rushed her to the doctor the following morning. A few days later worst fears came true as Emily was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia.

Doctors at the Penn State Health in Hershey, Pennsylvania, prescribed the young girl a 26-month regime of chemotherapy, which was extremely aggressive. During the initial weeks of treatment, Emily experienced high fevers and ended up having a rare condition that almost made the doctors amputate both her legs. Despite this, a month later, she was in remission. 

Source: Emily Whitehead Foundation
Source: Emily Whitehead Foundation

"We had a rough start but the doctors said when chemotherapy works for these kids, it works," shared Kari. Just when things started to look good for Emily, she relapsed in October 2011. Doctors had given the 6-year-old a 30% chance of surviving. "The news was more devastating to us than her original diagnosis," shared her father, Tom. 

"From the time she was little, she liked to pull pranks and make us laugh. She made our lives a lot better," expressed the 53-year-old who took his daughter to the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) to get a second opinion. "I told Emily that if I had to crawl to the North Pole, I would, if that's what it took to find someone to fix her," added Tom, who alongside his wife did exactly that.

As Emily prepared for a bone marrow transplant in February 2012, her parents got in touch with experts to find out every possible treatment. "I was just praying like, 'God, if you're up there, we need help right now.' I was kind of asleep but not really and I suddenly saw Emily at CHOP. And I could see her getting better," he wrote about the visions he had of his duaghter's recovery in his book "Praying for Emily: The Faith, Science, and Miracles that Saved Our Daughter."


Unfortunately by the end of February, her condition worsened to a point that she was no longer eligible for a transplant. But then doctors at CHOP informed them that the FDA had approved its Phase 1 clinical trial for CAR T-Cell therapy in children and Emily was the first pediatric patient. 

"It wasn't a hard decision for us at all," said Tom who knew the risks but was also aware that "the alternative was to go home on hospice and just watch her die." The family took a leap of faith and it miraculously worked in their favor. "It was a total shock after everything we she'd been through. We were just so excited," recalled Kari.

"I know my parents tried to make me smile every day. That's something really special that I still remember," said Emily who is now healthy at 17. After Emily, 15,000 people with blood cancer have successfully received the treatement. "Spreading awareness about treatments like CAR T-cell is really important to me. It's a miracle I'm alive — and I am so grateful," shared the teen. 

Cover image source: Emily Whitehead Foundation

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