(WTAJ) — In cancer therapy, there have been three pillars of treatment for decades. Radiation, chemotherapy, and surgery. Now there’s a fourth that is curing cancer. In large part, it’s thanks to the heart and struggles of a little girl from Central Pennsylvania.
Tom Whitehead of Philipsburg, is getting a biopsy at Abramson Cancer Center in Philadelphia. He’s been here about once a month over the last three years, getting spots around his body checked out. He’s had more than 15 cancerous growths removed, so they know him well here. But not just because of his cancer, because of what happened to his daughter.
Nine years ago, when Emily Whitehead was five years old, doctors diagnosed her with Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. Most people with it get chemotherapy and lead normal lives. But Emily wasn’t so lucky. The options for treatment quickly faded. The cancer spread through her body.
Despite being told Emily didn’t have much of a chance at survival, Tom and Kari did believe. And they found hope. Emily became the first child ever to get an immunotherapy treatment called CAR-T. At the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, they took out some of her cells. And at Penn labs, they modified them to attack cancer, then put them back inside of her.
After six weeks, the side effects were killing Emily. She was placed in a medically induced coma. And it looked like CAR-T therapy was over.
One night, a doctor told Tom that it was Emily’s last night. She wasn’t going to make it. Another doctor drafted an email explaining why she didn’t survive. But suggested one last drug to balance her system and it worked! Emily survived the night and recovered. The doctor never sent that email.
Four days later, on her 7th birthday, she woke up.
It was a miracle. The best present you can imagine. The cancer had disappeared. And her T-cells were able to fight off any cancer that returned.
Dr. Stephan Grupp at Children’s Hospital in Philadelphia says her case spawned a revolution in cancer treatment. He says it changed an entire field of medicine and the way these patients are treated.
Emily, now cancer-free for 7 years, is giving hope to thousands of other kids fighting Leukemia around the world. There are 95 hospitals, in 11 countries using CAR-T. Every major cancer center is doing it and knows of Emily.
Now Tom, Kari, and Emily are helping other families fight childhood cancer. They advocate for pediatric immunotherapy cancer research through the Emily Whitehead Foundation.
Emily, a 9th grader is a featured speaker at events around the world and talks to a lot of kids struggling with cancer.
Tom’s latest biopsy reveals another cancer growth. Unfortunately, CAR-T can’t help with it, yet. But he has the little girl on his side that revolutionized cancer therapy.
While sharing her story, she has befriended people like Lady Gaga, Stephen Spielberg and Bradley Cooper. Spielberg is encouraging her to consider a career in filmmaking.
The Whiteheads are on their way to leaving a legacy of hope and survival.
And they now have discovered that Emily’s therapy may prevent heart disease! That’s still in the early stages of research. If you know of someone that wants to learn more about Emily’s treatment, go to https://emilywhiteheadfoundation.org/our-journey/
The Whiteheads will host their Believe Ball in September 2020, where families treated with CAR-T will be invited to gather and celebrate life. Check out their website for more details about that and recent awards the Whiteheads were nominated for due to their efforts to fight cancer and support cancer survivors and their families.