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Family, faith and friends carry the Wards in their fight with Emily's cancer

By: Lacy Hilliard
Freelance Writer, Photographer

When mother Marlana Ward took her daughter, Emily, to the doctor on November 19, 2010 after concerns stemming from a lump behind her ear and a yellowish tint to her skin, she never imagined that the very next day, her sweet three-year-old daughter would be diagnosed with cancer.
Immediately following suspicions by Emily’s pediatrician, Dr. Taylor at First Choice Pediatrics, the family was rushed to Memphis where Emily was scheduled to meet with top pediatric oncologists at St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. It was there that Marlana and her husband, Mike, braced themselves as doctors told them every parent’s worst nightmare; Emily was diagnosed with late stage T-Cell Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Her cancer had progressed to the point that it was threatening her liver function and the doctors at St. Jude’s knew that immediate and aggressive chemotherapy was needed to save Emily’s life. As the team of doctors carefully monitored Emily and began to formulate her treatment plan, the family of four juggled life between their home in Johnson County, Tennessee and their new home, The Ronald McDonald House in Memphis, Tennessee.
ALL T-Cell is the most common form of childhood cancer with over 100,000 American children diagnosed with the disease each year. The prognosis for this aggressive form of cancer is improving each year with the five-year survival rate rising to 90% from the years 2000-2005. The rising survival rate and specialized treatments prove that research is the key to battling this childhood cancer. St. Jude’s can be thanked for many of the progressive life saving therapies that victims of childhood cancer undergo. However, cancer research is expensive. The estimated cost of operating a St. Jude’s Research Hospital for just one day is $1.7 million dollars. Over the course of three years, it is estimated that treating ALL T-Cell costs around $550,000 per patient. Combine these staggering figures with the fact that St. Jude’s will never turn a family away that cannot pay for treatments and it’s astounding that the hospital has been able to keep its doors open; but they have, since 1962.
Currently, Emily Ward is on week 68 of a 128-week treatment plan. Though the Ward family is largely residing at their Johnson County home, they still make trips to St. Jude’s Research Hospital in Memphis once every 16 weeks for scheduled lumbar punctures to determine the progress of Emily’s treatments. They must also venture to Johnson City, TN every Monday for Emily’s chemotherapy appointments. When Mike and Marlana were asked how they’ve been able to cope with this terrifying and tiresome situation, they both responded with, “She’s our baby girl. Our roles as parents never changed. Being there for her through all the pain is just part of being a parent. We’re still Mommy and Daddy and we’re there for her whatever her needs.”
Even though Emily has been clinically in remission since week 15 of her treatments, her weakened immune system still puts her at risk and special precautions must be taken. Currently, teacher Dianne Wilson out of Doe Elementary is responsible for Emily’s education through the “Homebound” program, but depending on how Emily fares throughout the rest of her treatments, the family hopes that she will be able to attend public school. The thought of this is frightening to Mike and Marlana, but they feel it would be beneficial to their daughter’s well-being and bring a sense of normalcy into two young lives (Emily and her little sister, Abigail) that have had a rocky start. Mike Ward spoke about how he will be encouraged when the day comes where his family can contract a common cold without fearing for Emily’s life.
To read the complete article, pick up a copy of this week's Tomahawk.