‘Fight like a ninja’
By Melanie Ruberti
FLOWERY BRANCH – Cancer was the last thing on Emily Spencer’s mind when she visited her doctor in early March.
“I felt kind of tired, but what mom doesn’t. I look after multiple kids,” she said with a laugh. “But I felt horrible. I was sleepy, I wanted to sleep all the time. My husband John noticed multiple bruises on my legs and lower back. I knew random bruising without any cause is not good. It just came on really fast.”
Emily was hoping she caught a case of the flu or strep throat. Blood tests told her doctor otherwise.
Her white blood cell count was 80,000. Typically, a person’s WBC count registers between 4,000 and 10,000.
The tests also showed another abnormality: there were more than 80 percent leukemic blasts traveling through her bloodstream.
Emily was diagnosed with Acute myeloid leukemia on March 7 and immediately admitted to Emory Hospital in Atlanta.
“It just all happened really fast,” she said. “When we got there, we have found out I have non-coagulating blood – meaning my blood wouldn’t clot. I didn’t have any platelets. So on top of doing chemotherapy, I was given round-the-clock blood transfusions.
“It was scary. My oxygen dropped really low and I had fluid on my lungs,” Emily added.
Oncologists gave the family more bad news when tests showed Emily’s leukemia was considered “high risk.” Doctors were not sure if the cancer would ever go into remission. Her best chance at survival was a bone marrow transplant.
Sadly, neither her parents, two brothers or her two children, Micah and Tatum Jayne were a match.
But the 2005 LaGrange High School graduate has a lot to live for – and she was not going down without a fight.
Both Emily and John work at the Eagle Ranch, a residential children’s program designed to help youths and families going through a crisis.
The couple serve as house parents for one of the girl’s homes in Flowery Branch.
“That first week, they (girls) knew something was going on,” John said. “We FaceTimed the girls and the parents. They were upset, but they understood.”
“We’re super close to the other house parents,” Emily added. “They stepped in to care for our children, our girls and visited every day in the hospital. One of the moms was a cosmetologist. She came three times to cut my hair as it started falling out.”
It was harder to explain the illness to Emily and John’s young son, Micah. They purposefully have not told him or their daughter, Tatum Jayne, she has cancer.
Micah knows Emily is sick and has rallied around her as only a five-year-old boy can.
“When my hair fell out, he (Micah) said, ‘I like your new hair-do,’ Emily said with a laugh. “He also told me to ‘fight like a ninja’ just like his favorite cartoon characters (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles).”
John has rarely left her side, she said.
“John has been my rock through this,” Emily said. “He automatically changes my dressings on my PICC line (catheter to receive chemo), he changes out my bags of chemo. I can’t lift my daughter, so he has taken on everything. He is the unsung hero. This is not just about me. My sweet kids – that’s who I fight for …
“There’s a passage in Exodus (14:14), ‘The Lord will fight for you, you need only to be still.’ God is definitely driving this. My mom, dad and brothers have put their lives on hold for us (family). We know we are not fighting this alone.”
Emily’s dad, Frank Smith, is the technical coordinator with the LaGrange Police Department. Her brother, Zac Smith, works for the West Point Fire Department and AMR. Together they held a “Be the Match” event in early May at the West Georgia Technical College.
More than 87 people showed up and signed up for the bone marrow donor registry list, Emily said. That group included LPD officers, staff, West Point firefighters and several first responders.
While Emily’s battle with leukemia is far from over, she has received some good news within the last month.
Her cancer is responding well to the chemotherapy. Her white blood cell count dropped to .2 by the second day “post treatment,” she said.
More astounding: doctors discovered a bone marrow donor on the national registry who was a perfect match for Emily. The person, who will remain anonymous, is currently being tested to make sure they are healthy enough for the procedure.
Emily began her pre-transplant tests on Tuesday.
If all goes well, Emily will receive the new, healthy bone marrow on June 20. The gift of life will come from a complete stranger.
“Someone is literally giving me life, a second chance, and a chance to see my children grow … to go to their graduations and their weddings,” Emily said. “It’s a huge sacrifice. My whole life depends on the willingness for someone to give.”
Emily and her family are faithful the rest of her cancer battle is already won.
“We know the Lord was fighting for us and walked before us,” she said. “We have always said my only choice is to beat it. I want to see my babies grow up.”
Melanie Ruberti is a reporter with LaGrange Daily News. She can be reached at 706-884-7311, ext. 2156.