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by Emma Peeples, Age 12
Till this day, I still have to go and see the doctors every six months and go for MRIs as well. What really makes me happy is that my tumor is in a stable condition.
I have had a really tough four and a half years, but the surgeries are over. I think the chemo played a big part. My advice to all the cancer victims that are still going through treatment is to be brave and strong. Hey, if I can do it, then I know you can, too.
In 1996, Ralph Peeples shared with us his reflections on his family’s experiences since the diagnosis of a brain tumor in his daughter, Emma. We reprint his story here, along with an update from Emma, now 12 years old and moving on.
It shouldn’t have happened to Emma. Before her third birthday, Emma had been through three open heart surgeries, a result of tricuspid atresia and related problems. She had made a wonderful recovery. Now, five years later, she is a precocious and mischievous second grader.
"It’s not craniopharyngioma. It’s glioma." I only barely knew what those words meant, when I heard the neurosurgeon say them. But the tone and the inflection were enough. Three days earlier, Emma had arrived at Duke by helicopter, after a hellish weekend of headaches and nausea. "Glioma," and the location of the tumor, in the hypothalamus, meant that the seven hour surgery had been unsuccessful. One more phrase entered our vocabulary: pilocytic astrocytoma. That was Emma’s diagnosis.
So we switched mental gears. We stopped thinking about a procedure that would "fix" things and tried to adjust to thinking about the future in terms of treatment: administer chemotherapy monthly, watch the blood counts, and assess every three months with MRIs. It was a tough adjustment, realizing that we were in a siege, not a battle. It was a devastating time, that first month. There were three surgeries, two seizures, and a week of physical therapy. As hard as it was for me—a devoutly nonmedical person—it was excruciating for Emma’s mom—herself a pediatrician, who trained at Duke.
Emma got through it. She was back in school a month after her discharge from the hospital. She got back control of her bladder. She learned to walk again. She decided not to wear any of the many wonderful hats her family and friends sent her. By the summer, she was cheerfully arguing with her brothers and her sister again. Just as she had delighted in doing, long before.
Once a month, we return to Duke for Emma’s chemotherapy. It’s still hard. It will be hard for a long, long time. But it could be much harder than it is. I have learned a little bit about perspective, I guess. I believe that in many ways, we are fortunate.
We have been sustained by family and friends. The neuro-oncology team at Duke has been terrific. I know that my questions, no matter how basic or confused, will be answered. I know they will be answered, as they always have been, with a rare combination of honesty, tact, and always, compassion. That is quite an accomplishment, I think.
We do not know what awaits us. There are several things I do know, however. I know that I have a remarkably resilient and beautiful daughter. I know that Emma is the most tenacious person I’ve ever met, and I also know that every time I return to Duke for Emma’s treatment, I am surrounded by children just as tenacious as Emma. I know that Emma got her strength from her mother who has refused time and again to waver or to even consider wavering. Emma and her Mom are simply indomitable. I could not be prouder.
I have learned to avoid windowless rooms. It was in a windowless room, in 1988, that we learned that Emma’s first heart surgery had failed. It was in a windowless room that we heard that the neurosurgeon had been unable to excise Emma’s tumor. It was in a windowless room that we were "consented"—given the litany of the risks Emma faced with chemotherapy and other treatments. The room where Emma receives her carboplatin every month is small and usually crowded. Sometimes it smells of stale french fries. But it has a window, and that’s all that matters.