On a whim, Emma decided to donate plasma. Then she got a phone call.

November 16, 2022, is a date that will forever be etched into Emma's memory. She didn't know it yet, but as she walked into the blood donation centre in Wagga Wagga, where she was living for uni, to donate plasma, her life as she knew it was about to change.

It was sheer chance she donated plasma that day. It was uni holidays (she was training to be a vet) and she'd originally taken the day off to help shear sheep in Yass, NSW. It had rained the night before so those plans were cancelled and, now with a day off, she headed into the local Lifeblood.

Emma says the days that followed didn't feel real. "One of the haematologists who worked for Lifeblood reached out and asked if I was feeling okay, that my bloods just looked a little bit funny," Emma tells Mamamia. "And I was thinking, 'Oh, maybe I'm anaemic or something'."

The thought that this could be something serious never even crossed Emma's mind, she felt great. So great in fact that months earlier, she'd run 100 kilometres for charity. "I'd been going to the gym and just finished my uni exams. I felt amazing, like better than good." What she didn't know at the time was just how much of a fight her body was enduring below the surface.

Five days later she received the phone call. "I was told to drive five hours from Wagga to Sydney on the suspicion of 'an acute lymphoid process,'" she says. "The next morning I received a formal diagnosis of Early T-Cell precursor Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia. A rare, aggressive and rapidly developing form of blood cancer." 


Emma was only 23.

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"There's definitely been multiple moments where I've sat back and just gone, 'If I didn't go when I went, how different things would be,'" Emma says.

"The type of leukaemia that I have is incredibly fast moving and aggressive. It could be a space of half a week, and it's a completely different picture that you're looking at."

Emma and her mum. Image: Supplied.


During this time, Emma had been in constant contact with her parents, who were in South Australia, about the situation. "I distinctly remember my mum asking me, 'Do we need to come and be with you?' And I said, 'No no, don't be silly, I'm fine.'

"On the drive up to Sydney I called my mum, battling tears, I said 'I think I need you now.'" 

At the drop of a hat, her mum, dad and brother got in the car in Wallaroo, a small regional town in South Australia where Emma grew up, and drove 16 hours nonstop across the country to be with her in St Vincent's Hospital, Sydney.

Emma, a self-described country girl, also had to pack up her life instantly.

"It was the Sunday, and they just said, 'Yeah, you've got to go to Sydney right now.' I remember just sitting on the couch crying, not really processing what's happened, and then having to pack a bag for an undisclosed amount of time to move to Sydney."


Emma says she didn't even get to say goodbye to any friends. "It was a pretty big move pretty quickly."

Once diagnosed, she commenced chemotherapy almost immediately.

"I started chemotherapy and concurrent treatments in every form that they came, orally, into my veins, into my muscle and into my spine."

Image: Supplied.


After six months of chemotherapy, she then had to prepare for a stem cell transplant. "My cancer was classified as high to very high risk, meaning the transplant was my best chance at staying in remission long term," she says.

"I remember reading the relapse and survival rates upon my diagnosis and being terrified. This transplant was my best shot at a life after cancer."

The preparation for this involved even higher doses of chemotherapy than Emma had ever thought possible, plus total body irradiation multiple times a day.

She was hooked up to chemotherapy for the best part of each day and then transported across the road to the oncology radiation unit where her whole body was fit into a perspex box and subjected to radiation therapy for 45 minutes morning and night. The theory behind this treatment was to destroy her immune system to the point where it was virtually non-existent in the hopes this would give her the best chance of accepting the donor immune cells.

Her brother, Matt, at 20 years old, selflessly became her donor and her hero.

Emma and her family. Image: Supplied.


Getting cancer at such a young age, Emma explains, can really twist your thinking. She was in a stage of life where children, for example, were something that was more "in the future." "But then to be told that could be taken away from you, it just completely switches your thinking," she says.

"I thought 'Hang on, I really want to be a mum, and I really want to have kids and I want to do anything I can to set myself up to be able to do that.'" For Emma, an early diagnosis meant she had time to preserve some of her fertility. 

"I'm very aware that in a lot of cases, that's not possible. That's just absolutely heartbreaking."

Cancer has stolen a lot from Emma — her health, her fertility and her hair to name a few. "My diagnosis and treatment also forced me to take a year off from university. Not just any year, my final year, the year I had been looking forward to after six long years at university. The toll this had on my mental health was monumental."


But it's also given her a whole new perspective on life. She has a profound sense of what is important, what's just a novel problem and what sort of things she should actually focus her energy on.

"I can put a wig on and look like a completely normal member of society. But underneath that, you're going through quite a fair bit. It's given me a different sort of respect. Everyone's got a different story. Everyone's going through something. Kindness is just so important."

Upon her initial admission into hospital in November, Emma did find immense kindness. Her family and partner Hugh were frantically figuring out where to stay, moving from hotel to hotel. Out of the chaos, that's where Sony Foundation's 'You Can Stay' program came in.

For 256 nights, they gave Emma a home away from home and a safe space. She describes it as more than just four walls and a bed. "Those walls gave me stability in a life full of uncertainties, they have seen me lose my hair for the first time, and again for a second time, they have seen me inject myself in an attempt to save my fertility, but most importantly it was a space in which my family were together."

It also provided her friendship. "Given my age, I'm too old to go into the Children's Hospital. But I'm too young to be on the ward that I was on," she says. "A lot of the people that were on the cancer ward with me are in their 70s or 80s. So it's been quite hard to sort of meet people that are going through the same thing at the same time."

She did meet one guy who was going through a very similar thing through the 'You Can Stay' program. "We're still in touch today.


"My battle with blood cancer was relentless but not solitary, thanks to Sony Foundation. With every agonising treatment, my family were by my side and I drew strength from them every day. I can honestly say that I couldn't have done it without them. In my darkest moments, when depression was rife, they made me laugh, they held me and they made me feel safe."

Image: Supplied. 


This year, Emma returned to university for her final year of Veterinary Science degree. But unfortunately, she has been dealt another speed bump.

"Two days ago, I received another phone call," she explains. "After nine months of slowly getting my life back post-transplant, I have relapsed and my cancer is back." Emma and her family are now preparing to fight again for a second time.

"Before getting sick, I didn't know the intricacies of chemotherapy and what that actually looks like for somebody who was sick," Emma explains. "Everyone sort of assumes that you pop into a building to have your chemo and then you leave. But it's a lot deeper than that."

What Emma wants is for people to not shy away from those with cancer but have conversations to truly understand.

"I'm a pretty open book. Nothing's really off-limits. If people are genuinely interested, I'm happy to talk about it. Happy to have those conversations so that everyone knows what we go through."

Sony Foundation's 'You Can Stay' program provides free and uncapped accommodation to regional and rural youth cancer patients aged 15-29 and their families, when required, to travel to city hospitals to access lifesaving treatment not available closer to home. Find out more here.

Feature Image: Supplied.