When you are 10 years old and told you have cancer — you are not really sure what that means.
Photo provided by Oldager family
“When I first found out I had cancer, I didn’t mind because I didn’t know what I had to go through to make it go away,” said Emma Oldager.
She did not realize it would mean chemotherapy, body scans, blood transfusions, a leg amputation, and being away from her father, brother, friends, and school. Neither did her parents.
Emma, a 5th grader at the Shanghai American School, or SAS, was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer, back in February. She had complained that her left leg was sore. Her parents, naturally, thought it was growing pains. As the pain intensified, they took Emma to the doctor.
The doctor said the words no parent ever wants to hear: “It’s cancer. Your daughter has a tumor on her left leg. “
“I did not want to break down in front of Emma,” her mother, Janne, said. “While Emma played on her iPad, I went into the nurses’ room and telephoned Claus (her husband). Then, and the week to come, we broke down often, but picked each other up.”
Fighting back tears and hoping for better news to come, the Oldager family knew they had a battle with cancer on their hands. And part of beating it is the right treatment.
The best option was 2,350 miles (3,780km) away from home.
Leaving their friends and family behind, Emma and her mother moved to Singapore. Emma’s father and her brother, Sebastian, 8, a 3rd grader at SAS would continue their lives in Shanghai.
Sebastian said the hardest part of being away from his sister and mother is “I can only see them on the weekends.”
Janne shared the same sentiment. “I am used to being there for Sebastian all the time, but knowing that he has had family around to help, the best teachers and friends imaginable, has been a great relief.”
SAS becomes family
It is SAS teachers and students who help lift the Oldagers’ spirits.
“Even the teachers and staff I did not know before, everyone at SAS, has been supportive,” Janne said. “It has really helped our family through this difficult period of time.”
And thanks to technology, Emma has been able to keep up with her schoolwork and be a regular part of her class. She joins Judy Sweeney’s 5th grade class almost every day via Skype.
“Emma is right there with us. She’s doing exactly what we’re doing, “ said Sweeney.
She shuts her bedroom door and goes to school. Students take turns carrying “iPad Emma” to recess, Chinese, math, and lunch.
“I love that I don’t have to count her absent,” Sweeney said.
Emma has homework. It is emailed to her, or her father brings it on the weekends.
Sweeney has made the classroom so real she even sent silk worms to Emma in Singapore.
“Emma told me the silk worm eggs were hatching. I didn’t believe her at first, until Emma returned them (via her dad) to Shanghai,” Sweeney laughed. “There were lots of silk worms!”
The SAS students have really gotten to enjoy literally carrying Emma from class to class.
“I tell my students to be careful with Emma,” Sweeney said kiddingly. “Don’t run, don’t drop her.”
Emma has a sense of humor and a big smile. A smile that is so radiant it’s hard not to grin back.
Photo provided by Oldager family
The other noticeable accessory is her scarf. She wears this around her head because she lost her hair, a common side effect of chemotherapy.
When asked how many scarves she owns, Emma — who was wearing a navy and red one — said, “I don’t know. I have a lot.”
The moment you speak with the 10-year-old she seems happy and healthy. She and her family are teaching us a lesson.
“Don’t live a life in fear of getting sick, or yet worse, your children getting sick,” said Janne. “Cancer does not change who you are, though it might change your life and how you look.”
Emma is a girl just wanting to have her childhood back. She wants to go outside and play, which is limited because her immune system is still weak.
Her mother wants people to know, “She (Emma) is the same girl that left Shanghai at the end of February, but has been in a battle that has been harder than Harry Potter fighting Voldemort — than any fiction can depict. “
Emma has a rigorous treatment schedule.
She went through three cycles of chemotherapy at first. When that did not affect the tumor in her leg the doctors suggested surgery to save her life.
Emma’s leg was amputated above the knee in March, just 10 days after her 10th birthday.
“When my mom and dad told me my leg needed to be amputated I cried and then I couldn’t sleep because I was thinking about it,” said Emma.
After surgery, she was put on a nine-cycle chemotherapy regimen. She is given three different drugs over three days. On the fourth day, she is given a shot to boost the production of her white blood cells. She also gets medicine to protect her from chemotherapy’s side effects.
She gets two weeks of “rest” in each cycle –which includes several medical tests, at least one blood transfusion, and rehabilitation.
Janne said the hardest part of the treatment is “seeing Emma suffer, the only treatment option (chemotherapy) for this is so inhumane, and the uncertainty, there is always the risk of micro metastasis that scans cannot detect.”
For Emma, “The hardest part of treatments is going to the hospital and not being with your friends,” she said. She often keeps in touch with her friends via Skype.
Emma shared that she is thankful her mom is nearby. “My mother is always there for me when I need treatment.”
The greatest risk to Emma is the cancer spreading to her lungs, so she goes through scans to make sure it is not present.
She is also trying to learn to walk again.
“I wish all her battles ended after the last chemo at the end of October, but learning to walk and run anew is going to take time,” said Janne. “I hope her leg will remind her of what a great fighter she is.”
Treatment and research
As with many cancers, continuing research and treatment for cancer like Emma’s is essential.
Chemotherapy, the most commonly used cancer treatment, kills cancer cells to control the spread of it. It also shrinks tumors to make surgery another option.
But “It (chemotherapy) is a nasty cure, since so many healthy cells are destroyed too,” said Janne. “It takes more research to develop a way to better target the cancer only.”
Right now, hospitals like Mayo Clinic (in Rochester, Minnesota) are running clinical trials of new treatments for sarcomas. The more doctors learn the more treatments will be available for patients like Emma.
Emma will finish her final round of chemotherapy in October. The Oldagers will return to Shanghai at the end of October.
Until then, Emma will still go to class and learn like everyone else. And she will go to her favorite restaurant in Singapore when she can.
“My favorite restaurant is a Korean one. I like the seafood pancakes.”