It started as a kink in her neck.
Emma Dabill, 16, thought she had pulled a muscle or slept funny. A few days later, it hurt to the touch.
Emma’s mom, Cindy Kreisberger, scheduled a visit with her pediatrician, who brought in a colleague to examine the lump. The doctors thought perhaps her lymph node was swollen and scheduled a CT scan.
Kreisberger got the phone call while enjoying a staycation with her family.
“The ENT asked if we could come the next day to go over the results of her scan,” she said. “I asked if we could schedule the appointment the following week after we got home, but he said no. He needed to see us right away. We knew it wouldn’t be great news but we never imagined cancer.”
The diagnosis – lymphoma – knocked the wind out of mother and daughter. A needle biopsy confirmed it was Hodgkins lymphoma, thus starting a long and grueling treatment regimen.
“From June 2018 through March 2019, we practically lived at Phoenix Children’s Hospital,” Kreisberger said. “She received chemo five days a week, followed by a two-week break, then more chemo. Some days we were there for eight hours straight.”
The Scottsdale family did their best to stay positive throughout the long treatment, though Cindy, a single working mom of two daughters, said they were all on “auto pilot.”
“The diagnosis was devastating. In some ways, it was good that we were so busy with all of the treatments, not to mention work and school. We didn’t have time to dwell on the anxiety and fear,” she said.
During this time, Emma’s grandmother, Lorraine Kreisburger, stepped up in big ways to help manage Emma’s treatment.
Cindy even arranged for Emma to live with her grandma for a time, a “quarantine” of sorts to protect Emma’s suppressed immune system from any illnesses Cindy or her younger daughter Rebecca might bring home.
“Emma and her grandma were already close, but this experience really strengthened the bond between them,” said Cindy.
Emma went back to school in March, which proved challenging. A senior at Chaparral High School, she stepped into a spotlight she didn’t want.
“Everyone knew she had cancer and it was not the kind of attention any teenage girl wants,” said her mom. “She had really wonderful friends who stood by her. One of her best friends had fought cancer the year before.
“She really was there for Emma. She understood better than anyone that Emma was the same girl underneath, even if she had lost her hair to chemo.”
Emma also found support from Children’s Cancer Network, a Chandler nonprofit organization that serves families across Arizona facing pediatric cancer.
“We worked with Sherri Irby, who was absolutely lovely,” said Cindy. “She fitted Emma with a wig and gave her some makeup and other things to help her feel a little better about herself. They’ve provided steady support to our family throughout this incredibly difficult journey.”
“Our biggest priority is to ensure no family has to fight cancer alone,” said Patti Luttrell, CCN’s founder and executive director. “Pediatric cancer can be incredibly isolating. It can create extreme financial, social and emotional difficulties for families. We’re here to help with all of it.”
CCN provides a host of services to families like Emma’s, like gas cards that offset the cost of travel to and from chemo, grocery gift cards to help parents feed their families, wigs, health and wellness activities, support programs for siblings, college scholarships and numerous others.
This support is critically important for families battling pediatric cancer, especially since funding levels are so low on the national level.
Indeed, childhood cancer continues to be the most overlooked and underfunded category of all cancer research, comprising just 4 percent of federal funding.
In the last 20 years, only four new drugs have been approved by the FDA to treat childhood cancer specifically.
“Research funding is limited because the number of children diagnosed with cancer is small compared to the numbers of adult cancer patients,” Luttrell said.
“The survival rate for kids is improving, but two-thirds of them experience chronic and even life-threatening secondary effects from toxic treatments like chemotherapy and radiation,” she added. “The societal impact of pediatric cancer is significant, even though the numbers are smaller.”
It’s been more than a year since Emma completed her treatments and Cindy reports she is doing well.
A pharmacy major at the University of Arizona, she is completing her freshman year online amid COVID-19.
“The pandemic has been a nightmare for so many families, but we have found a silver lining,” said Cindy. “With Emma at home, we’re making up for all of the time we lost during her cancer fight. She is so bright and so motivated. It’s amazing to have a front-row seat as she works toward her degree.”
Children’s Cancer Network’s 10th Annual Run to Fight Children’s Cancer, a virtual 5k/10k scheduled Oct. 18-25, provides an opportunity to build awareness of childhood cancer and raise money for research, treatments, patient education and support services.
The race benefits CCN and Phoenix Children’s Hospital. $45. runtofightcancer.com
Learn more about CCN at childrenscancernetwork.org or on Facebook.