Written by: Jessica Savarese, THON Chair
When you become a part of a school and community as large as Penn State’s, it’s only fitting to become a part of the world’s largest student-run philanthropy, too. Penn State’s THON is important to our PRSSA members, and just as important is our THON family, the Whiteheads.
Our little THON hero with big goals is 9-year-old Emily Whitehead who never fails to entertain. Now a healthy fourth grader and two years cancer free, she has come a long way since her diagnosis of acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL) when she was 5 years old.
Unlike many cases of pediatric cancer that can now be cured with chemotherapy, Emily relapsed twice while receiving treatment. With options running out, her parents and doctors tried something never done before with a pediatric patient, T-cell therapy. It involved removing the white blood cells from her body, genetically reprogramming them with a modified HIV virus trained to kill the cancer cells, and putting them back into her body.
With virtually no alternatives, Emily’s parents decided to try it. The procedure initially caused Emily to become so sick that she was put on a ventilator. Unclear of whether or not she could recover, her doctors, fortunately, worked quickly enough to discover an arthritis drug that returned her immune system levels back to normal. The arthritis drug worked and just one week later, Emily was in remission, and has been ever since.
Her success story led to further research of this immunotherapy as a cure for cancer. Most recently, CNN interviewed the Whiteheads to share Emily’s courageous story. Following Emily’s success story, 30 more pediatric patients at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, where Emily was treated, have gone through the T-cell therapy.
Plans now include reaching out more facilities nationwide to help more pediatric patients. As Emily’s father, Tom Whitehead, said, hopefully one day she can say “she was the beginning of the end of cancer.”
For Emily’s 9th birthday, her goal is to raise $9,000 for cancer research. To help her succeed (and she is very close!) visit www.youcaring.com/9k9years!
Also be sure to check out the BuzzFeed article about the fundraiser and learn more about Emily’s journey and story.
Image Credit: Prayer’s for Emily (Emma) Whitehead’s Facebook page.