On the Pulse

“At 17, My World Completely Changed”: Two-Time Cancer Survivor Shares Her Path to Wellness

9.7.2023 | Ashley Speller

A young adult woman holds up four booksAs a second-year grad student working toward a doctorate degree in the field of health sciences, Emma is as busy as ever.

But for this 23-year-old, originally of Snohomish, WA, facing extraordinary challenges with determination and resilience is a skill she mastered early on.

In 2017, after experiencing extreme bouts of itchiness from head to toe, Emma went to see a dermatologist to get checked out, thinking she might be developing some form of eczema.

During the appointment, the doctor recommended a chest X-ray to potentially check for anything more serious. Unfortunately, the results were everything they hoped it wouldn’t be.

“I had tumors on my heart, lungs and under my clavicles – basically I had them all throughout my chest region,” Emma explained. “I was diagnosed with Stage II Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, and it was like everything in the world around me slowed down. My body gave out and I just fell into my brother’s arms. At 17, my world completely changed.”

She was referred to the Cancer and Blood Disorders Center (CBDC) team at Seattle Children’s, whose experts treat children, teens and young adults, including those with the hardest-to-treat cancers and blood disorders.

From that point on, Emma underwent many rounds of chemotherapy infusions over a two-year period, until 2019 when unfortunately, her cancer returned.

“I relapsed, and afterwards, I had had radiation to the neck and chest area, in addition to my ongoing chemotherapy cycle,” she recalled. “One of the side effects that often times a lot of people don’t talk about are also the reproductive and infertility issues, so at 19, prior to starting those treatments, I underwent a process to have my eggs harvested as well.”

At Seattle Children’s, this process is called fertility preservation, and are proactive steps some patients can to take to potentially have biological children in the future if their condition or treatment is expected to impact their fertility.

A teen girl sits in a chair while hooked up to receive chemotherapyThe drastic life change required that Emma not only take care of her body, but also her mind. For Emma, the physical demands needed to fight her cancer were immensely difficult, however she says it was actually the mental strength that it took to keep going that was the hardest, especially as a teenager.

“I was set up with a psychologist in Seattle Children’s Adolescent and Young Adult (AYA) Cancer Program who specialized in working with people my age, and this was such a game-changer for me,” Emma shared. “I think it’s so important to seek mental health services while going through treatment because cancer is as much a mental health battle as it is a physical battle.”

Emma never stopped fighting, and today she is cancer-free and thriving. When she is not studying, Emma spends her time reading a good book, attending musical theater performances, and volunteering.

“I’m a peer mentor for teenagers who are going through cancer treatment, and I have also guest lectured at several universities to speak about the mental health of teens with a chronic illness,” she explained. “If I can help share my story to make one person’s experience just a little bit better, then it is completely worth it.”

A young woman smiles at the cameraThis September, Emma will also be a featured panelist in the Pediatric Moving Beyond Cancer to Wellness event co-hosted by Seattle Children’s Survivorship Program and The Fred Hutch, designed for pediatric, adolescent and young adult cancer patients, survivors, caregivers, friends and family.

This free conference is recommended for cancer survivors who are 12 years old and older, and parents of cancer survivors of all ages. It will provide general education on a variety of the late and long-term effects faced by young cancer survivors after treatment is completed and help promote wellness and empowerment after cancer.

Looking ahead, Emma plans to continue giving back by using her voice and career as a future doctor to impact others, both inspired by her own cancer journey.

She is forever grateful for the support she received at Seattle Children’s, especially from her care team including Dr. Jennifer Wilkes, Dr. Molly Taylor and Tina Homan, all providers in Seattle Children’s CBDC.

“I literally say to my parents that they will be invited to my wedding one day,” she said. “That’s how influential these three women were on my whole experience. It’s incredible to look back at that 17-year-old girl versus the 23-year-old girl that’s sitting here today. She’s been through a lot. I don’t think I would be where I am today without this experience.”