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Dealing with a Daughter’s Cancer Diagnosis: One Family’s Story

Read time: 5 minutes

Huntsman Cancer Institute child life specialist Abbie Lofgren talks to Emma Bresee before one of her appointments.
Huntsman Cancer Institute child life specialist Abbie Lofgren talks to Emma Bresee before one of her appointments.

If you are a parent, imagine your young child—bright-eyed, full of energy and love. Their whole life in front of them. Now they say they are in pain. You can’t do anything to ease it. You take them to the doctor and after many tests, you’re ushered into a room and told the news you didn’t want to hear. Your child has cancer.

“I fell apart,” Sarah Bresee says. “It’s something you wish would never happen to anyone and now, you’re facing the worst-case scenario. The first month after her diagnosis, I would cry at the drop of a hat. There were so many questions. Is she going to be OK? Is she ever going to be 100% again?”

Sarah’s 11-year-old daughter, Emma, was diagnosed in March 2021 with Ewing sarcoma, a rare type of cancer that occurs in bones or in the soft tissue around bones. Emma started having pain the month before. Originally, it seemed like her juvenile arthritis, which she had since the age of two, was the cause.

“My backside started hurting when I would sit,” Emma says. “My parents asked if I fell, but I didn’t remember falling. Over the next three days, it got worse—to the point I couldn’t sit down. I had to lay on my stomach. My doctor at Primary Children’s Hospital ordered an ultrasound, which led to an MRI and then a biopsy.”

So how did Emma respond when she heard the word c-a-n-c-e-r?

“I was freaked out,” Emma says. “I knew people lose their hair and have to stay in the hospital for a while. Then they said Ewing sarcoma and I was like, ‘What’s that?’ Once the doctors started using words I didn’t understand, it was scary. I knew it was serious because my dad cried, and he never does that.”

I would probably tell other kids that your family loves you. There are so many amazing people here to help. You’re going to get through this.
Emma Bresee

Emma started chemotherapy at Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital immediately, something she continued every other week until November 2021. After each chemotherapy session, Sarah would stay in the hospital for a few days.

“We decided on radiation therapy and that’s why we wound up at Huntsman Cancer Institute,” Sarah explains. Pediatric patients receive most of their cancer care at Primary Children’s, but they get radiation at Huntsman Cancer Institute. “Emma had radiation on her sacrum every day from June to August, while continuing her chemotherapy, so we had to coordinate the treatments and transportation between the two hospitals.”

During the dual treatments, Emma recalls how bad it was. “I was super sick every day for a month.” Since the radiation was targeting her sacral area, which is where bloods cells are made, they were not regenerating as quickly as normal. “The doctors warned us about how tough it was going to be on her, but it was still so difficult to see her vomiting and being so ill,” says Sarah. After that spell, however, Emma’s body started recovering from radiation. “I would say about September or October was when I started feeling like I was getting back to normal,” adds Emma.

Emma remained positive about her situation and knew it was a process. Even from the original diagnosis, she comforted her parents, asking them how they were doing and trying to lift their spirits.

“We live about 30 minutes away, so I knew I wouldn’t be alone,” Emma says. “My family could hang out with me in the hospital and get my mind off things. I was able to have my brother, Austin, and sister, Ava, visit one day to play some Nintendo games. I know it was tough on my youngest sister, Hazel, because she wasn’t allowed to visit.”

Eventually, Emma started losing her hair due to treatments. Not wanting to prolong the situation, she decided to shave her head.

“That was another really tough point,” Sarah says. “It was traumatic and I stood outside the whole time and cried. But even then, Emma comforted me. She always did that—even on her hardest days, when she felt miserable.”

Abbie Lofgren and two providers standing next to Emma as she's lying on proton therapy machine

Emma credits the proton therapy care team at Huntsman Cancer Institute for helping her through the most difficult times. The Bresees also acknowledged the work of Abbie Lofgren, a child life specialist at Huntsman Cancer Institute.

“Abbie always made us feel welcome whenever we visited,” Sarah says. “She was always a really big source of comfort and would help us feel better.”

“Abbie was great and would bring me gifts,” Emma adds. “The entire radiation team and nurses felt like family. They even mailed me a birthday present in October. It was like celebrity treatment. I would always want Fritos and water every time I went in, and they made sure I got it. I was sad when it was done because it became hard not to see everyone.”

Emma also says music therapy and meditation played a big role in taking her mind off things, in between reading Fablehaven, Dragonwatch, and Harry Potter books.

“When I started freaking out one time, this lady came in and did meditation. I fell asleep for two hours. It was the first time I felt like I had any rest and it really helped. Also, the music therapist would come play guitar. At first, I didn’t want to do anything. Then I started asking to hear some Disney songs—anything to get my mind off things. She started showing me how to play guitar and then we switched to piano. Now, I’m taking piano lessons and even performed on a televised charity program.”

Emma is cancer-free as of November 2021. She continues to get checkups every three months and even her arthritis has lessened due to the chemotherapy. “Good things can come from horrible situations,” Emma says.

“Hopefully, if your child develops cancer, it’s treatable,” Sarah says. “I would tell other parents that it can and will get better, but it isn’t easy. Try and take it day by day and not overthink everything. Spend time with your child. Enjoy the good days. A lot of families aren’t as lucky as ours. I can’t imagine that hurt.”

And Emma’s advice to pediatric cancer patients? “I would probably tell other kids that your family loves you. There are so many amazing people here to help. You’re going to get through this.”

Cancer touches all of us.