Class of '22Emma, the reigning Miss Teen Magnolia State, was treated for cancer at St. Jude
When Emma tells the story of her cancer treatment as a toddler at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, she starts with her mother’s memories. She admits it used to bother her: the not remembering.
She does remember the checkup visits, which continue to this day. The easy rapport she has with everyone at St. Jude, who feel like old friends. The sense of well-being she has each time she walks through the door.
She imagines the doctors must have played peek-a-boo. She believes the nurses must have cradled her in their arms — it’s as if she can almost feel it.
She knows they saved her life.
In November, she was crowned Miss Teen Magnolia State, and she talked about St. Jude in her interviews with the judges.
She believes St. Jude has shaped key parts of who she is: a scrappy athlete and former cheerleading flyer with a high pain tolerance who pushes her body to the limit. An empathetic person who wants everyone, no matter their circumstance, to feel beautiful.
But the actual thing that brought her to St. Jude has become the answer to the ice-breaker question, “What is something about you that would surprise people if they knew it?” Answer: “I went through cancer treatment.”
'A handful of her hair'
One day in late 2004, Emma’s mom, Kimberly, lifted her 9-month-old baby from the bath and breathed in the warm, soapy freshness of her little girl. She enveloped Emma in a big, plush towel, laid the bundle down on the rug and smoothed her daughter’s damp, blond curls.
She made silly faces at the baby and the baby smiled back. She tickled Emma on her belly and the little girl giggled and squirmed.
That’s when Kimberly felt the knot in Emma’s belly where a knot shouldn’t have been.
She sat Emma up and it vanished.
A few months later, Kimberly and Emma’s dad, Scott, learned the knot was hepatoblastoma, a liver cancer, and Emma became a patient at St. Jude. The surgeon removed the tumor from her liver.
Kimberly remembers seeing Emma toddling down the hallway soon after beginning chemotherapy.
“She says, ‘Mommy, wook!’ and she has a handful of her hair,” said Kimberly.
In that moment, tufts of their old life, as insubstantial as cotton fluff, just blew away.
Or so it seemed.
“I don’t have a lot of memories”
When Emma was 6, her dad was diagnosed with colon cancer and passed away the next year. “I just remember he was my best friend and he was the funniest person I ever met,” said Emma.
“I don’t have a lot of memories, but I miss him."
She does remember they bonded over cancer.
“We would always talk about it, how he’d lose his hair and everything,” said Emma. "We’d make jokes about how I got mine back and he hadn’t.”
They both had surgery scars. His ran vertically. Hers ran horizontally.
They were scar buddies. Cancer buddies.
This is what they shared and when Emma looks in the mirror at the scar that runs across her abdomen, she realizes: This is something I love about me because it ties me to him.
'I finally got to experience that'
In July 2021, St. Jude removed a hernia from the site of Emma’s original surgery. Her doctor was able to go in through her old scar to complete the procedure.
She found the experience healing, even in ways she hadn’t expected.
It’s been like knitting together parts of herself.
“I was able to stay there overnight and talk to my nurses and everything,” said Emma. “I finally got to experience that. I’ve been around it my whole life, but I never could remember that part of it.”
For years, her mom decided the kindest thing she could do for Emma was to help her forget.
“She didn’t want me to remember it because it was like a sad and hard time in her life and everything, but I was like, ‘I kind of want to remember that. I want to remember having cancer and beating it.’ You know? I was like, ‘That would have been awesome.’”
At 18 years old and on the cusp of her high school graduation, Emma has realized the power of reclaiming her own past.
Of showing her scar off proudly, of redefining what it means to be a beauty pageant winner and of shattering old notions of perfection. “It doesn’t exist,” said Emma of perfection.
Of acknowledging the pain of loss, as well as the real pleasure of saying, “Yep, that was me who kicked cancer’s tail.”
And of sharing her story with the world.
Signing a yearbook is a time-honored tradition. Be a part of the St. Jude Class of '22 by writing a brief note in our digital yearbook!