For this 4-year-old girl, it’s a world of hope after she beats cancer

Emma was a princess for a day.

She sat in her sparkly princess dress at the Bippity Boppity Boutique while Cinderella styled her hair and painted her nails. The royal treatment was in preparation for Cinderella’s Royal Dinner and Ball, where she would dance with Prince Charming.

It wasn’t a fairytale. The 4-year-old, cancer survivor and her mother, Katie Woolsey, and sister Mikaella, 1, spent five August days at Disney World after the Kids Wish Network granted her wish.

They rode the rides, visited with Cinderella, spotted Mickey Mouse and Minnie Mouse and spent time at Sea World, Disney’s Animal Kingdom and the Magic Kingdom.

“I found Goofy,” Emma said, “but I didn’t find Pluto or Daisy. We rode the Dumbo Ride and the Magic Carpet ride. It was flying all around! Whee!

“And we went on a water ride to cool off.”

Once upon a time, Emma’s mom wasn’t so sure her daughter’s story would have such a happy ending.

‘Something just wasn’t right’

When Emma was 6-months-old, her mother noticed a problem with her right eye.

“It didn’t move with her other eye when it was supposed to,” said Katie Woolsey, of Lebanon. “I brought it to her pediatrician’s attention because I was worried.”

Her pediatrician diagnosed it as a lazy eye, Katie said. She took Emma home and life went on as usual, even through Katie still worried about her daughter’s eye. It didn’t seem to be getting any better.

By the time Emma was 15 months old and walking, Katie knew something was definitely wrong. Emma couldn’t walk at all without holding on to furniture or clinging to walls.

“I knew something just wasn’t right,” Katie said. “She should have been walking by herself and she just wasn’t. So I took her back to her pediatrician. He took one look at her eye and immediately sent us to Children’s in St. Louis.”

On Jan. 13, 2009, doctors at Children’s Hospital in St. Louis diagnosed bilateral retinoblastoma, a rare cancer that affects approximately one in every 15,000 children. Cancerous tumors were growing on Emma’s optic nerve and she could see nothing out of her right, bright blue eye.

“She couldn’t walk right because she was blind in that eye,” Katie said. “My daughter couldn’t see.”

The eye had to be removed shortly after the initial diagnosis. Then six months of chemotherapy started.

“They had to take it out or it would have spread to her brain,” Katie said. “She has 20/20 vision in her left eye.”

Without treatment, 98 percent of patients with bilateral retinoblastoma die when the cancer spreads to the brain, according to the Digital Journal of Ophthalmology at the Harvard Medical School.

The road to recovery

Emma has been in remission for two years, her mother said, but the prosthetic right eye has already been replaced a couple of times to keep up with Emma’s growing skull. It will be replaced several more times before Emma is an adult and regularly replaced her entire life as the surface of the prosthetic wears down.

“Replacing the prosthetic has not been a fun process at all,” Katie said. “But she’s doing good. We still have to go in for checkups to make sure the cancer is gone and it will be like that for a long time.”

The prosthetic eye matches her remaining eye so closely, a casual observer wouldn’t notice the blond, energetic, talkative pre-schooler has an ocular replacement. The prosthetic is attached to a permanent implant in her eye socket that allows the eye to move naturally and in unison with her other eye.

The time of her life

Katie wasn’t surprised when Emma chose Disney World as her wish.

Cinderella is Emma’s favorite princess. Why?

“Because she is,” Emma said. “I like Cinderella and I like Dora.”

She’s getting out of her Dora phase and now it’s all about princesses,” Katie said. “She was excited to go and see Cinderella.”

Emma’s appointment with Cinderella came early one early morning before the park officially opened.

“We got there and it was so quiet because no one was in the park yet,” Katie said. “It was very neat to be able to walk around the park before it opened. That was really special for us.”

Prince Charming asked her to dance during the ball. And Emma discovered that Cinderella’s wicked stepmother and evil stepsisters weren’t all that bad.

“I saw Cinderella’s evil stepmom but she was nice,” Emma said. “And I saw the stepsisters. They were characters.”

At Sea World, Emma “saw dolphins and whales and dolphins and more dolphins,” she said. “I like dolphins.”

It’s a trip Emma and her family will never forget.

“We had a great, great time,” Katie said. “Emma loved it. We all had a wonderful time.”

The Kids Wish Network

What: A national charitable organization dedicated to creating happy memories and improving the quality of life for children who have experienced life-altering situations. Its programs — including granting wishes, providing gifts and books and designating heroes — have helped more than 73,000 children this year.


Local assist: Several local organizations, including Illinois River Energy, the Lebanon Lions Club, Belleville American Legion Post 58 and the Lebanon Women’s Club pitched in to help make Emma’s trip to Disney World memorable.

Belleville News Democrat
Belleville, Illinois

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Kids Wish Network is a charitable organization dedicated to infusing hope, creating happy memories, and improving the quality of life for children having experienced life-altering situations. Kids Wish Network assists children and their families through several key programs.