As we sat and talked, she tapped her leg with a piece of metal “treasure” she had found while they were at the park. The tiny metallic clangs echoed through the picnic pavilion. A group of young campers sat at the table behind us, eating their snacks. A few of them stole sideways glances, curious looks and whispers.
“When can we go down to the playground?” she asked, boredom creeping into her voice. Realizing we were probably on borrowed time, her mom and sister packed up their things and we made the short trek down the path to the bright red, green, and yellow structure.
Last Spring, Emory began complaining that her leg hurt, though never enough to wake her up from her sleep or keep her sidelined from doing all the things she loved so much, like gymnastics. It was likely growing pains, everyone had reasoned, especially since there was no redness or swelling- no other red flag that would point to something much scarier. They went on about their lives for the next few months, but at Emory’s next well visit, her mom, Jen, circled back to it one more time. Yes, it was still bothering her. The doctor ran his hand down Emory’s right leg. This time, his tone shifted immediately.
“You need to go down to VCU today,” he told them.
It was a Thursday when they were sent to the hospital. Jen dismissed the thought that it could be anything other than an injury. It wasn’t until the following week, after doctors read through scans and X rays (and Jen had tried unsuccessfully to read the expressions of the poker-faced techs), that they were finally told it was a form of bone cancer- an aggressive type known as osteosarcoma. The date was August 6, 2020.
Osteosarcoma is sneaky, as most cancers are. If it comes back, it tends to show up in the lungs. Emory’s family was told that she was lucky, that the cancer had been confined to her right leg only. They could target it with all of the arsenal they had available (30 weeks of chemo), but they would also need to make a heavy decision about the reconstruction of her right leg: they could do a replacement of her femur (essentially a prosthetic within her leg), or amputate.
When they explained the options to their then 6 year old, she responded simply but firmly: “Cut it off.” There was no back and forth. She understood what it meant, and also what it didn’t mean. Choosing the in-leg prosthesis- while seemingly not as drastic- would require multiple surgeries over the course of her life, would mean more deterioration of the bones in her leg, and a bigger chance of relapse. Even though she couldn’t possibly wrap her head around a lifetime of implications that had yet to present themselves, Emory made the choice to not have to be a patient for the rest of her life.
Get rid of the cancer, and get back to living.
So last October, while most kids were picking out Halloween costumes, Emory was picking out the “skin” that would go onto the top of her new leg. And at Christmas time, while shiny new toys were being unwrapped and parts to playsets were assembled, a little girl in Powhatan learned how to attach a brand new rainbow leg to her stump.
And on this unusually mild August morning- which just happened to be the 6th (because I'm convinced that there are no coincidences here)- Emory called to me from the top of the slide, hopping off to see the back of my camera and giggling at herself. I watched as her big sister, Elena, helped her across the monkey bars, and then stood by- a posture of protectiveness and pride- as a boy walked up to Emory, clearly calculating his approach.
“What happened to your leg?”
“It got sick and the doctors had to take it off,” Emory replied, as if this was common playground chat.
“That sucks...” the boy said, and I noted that maybe kids are actually more capable of holding these delicate spaces than some adults.
“Yeah, but it’s better now.” She shrugged. And with that, she turned and ascended the slope of the slide, pulling her way to the top. Because if there’s anything to know about Emory, it’s that she’s not letting anything slow her down.
September is Childhood Cancer Awareness month. Connor's Heroes Foundation makes it possible for these families to receive financial and emotional support in the wake of receiving devastating news, so that they don't have to face their child's diagnosis alone. If you'd like to make a donation to support Emory- and so many other children that are currently in treatment- click below.