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Times scholarship winner Emily Lester loses cancer battle

LARGO — Emily Lester was just 14 when she learned about life's fragility.

Taylor, a little girl half Emily's age, was dying of cancer.

Emily visited Taylor, whom she had roomed with at All Children's Hospital. She saw the tiny, pale girl bundled in a blanket on her mother's lap. Hot tears streamed out. Emily said a prayer.

• • •

That night was my first time witnessing the thin line between life and death, an experience that became exceedingly more common as the years went on.

This is life with cancer.

• • •

The handwriting on her scholarship application is bubbled, big, loopy — totally teenage.

The content is very mature.

She wrote her name, age, address. Then came: "Special circumstances for you and your family."

In 2001, I was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia; relapsed 2005; bone marrow transplant 2006.


Emily was a sixth-grader — an exemplary student, a huge Harry Potter fan, captain of her school soccer team — when suddenly she started feeling unwell. She had lost her spark.

She was 12.

The diagnosis was like a giant boulder plunging into the calm waters of my existence. Suddenly, I was soaked by a splash of fear and uncertainty.

She went through chemotherapy and surgery, beginning a long process with no end in sight.

As the months dragged on, I began to feel as though I was no longer in charge of my own life. That is the worst part about cancer. The loss of control.

Emily, of Largo, finally went into remission and entered St. Petersburg High as a freshman in the International Baccalaureate program. She helped start a cancer support group at the school, where kids from different cliques could talk openly about how they had been affected by the disease.

After three years of suffering and fatigue, she was enjoying high school.

In 2005, she relapsed. This time her younger sister, Catherine, came to her rescue, donating bone marrow to her sister in 2006. It seemed to work.

Emily transferred to Seminole High and took on a full course load. This year, she was ranked fifth in her class with a 3.89 unweighted grade point average. She belonged to the National Honor Society, Mu Alpha Theta math club, Key Club, and Interact Club.

She wove the fight against cancer into her daily life.

She volunteered for the American Cancer Society, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society and St. Jude Children's Research Hospital.

As a team leader for Relay for Life, Emily and her "Chemo Crew" raised more than $40,000 in six years.

She also helped organize the Bay to Bay Bone Marrow Drive, bringing more than 200 people to the bone marrow registry.

In fighting this disease, I have come to realize that hope is essential to life; a driving force, powering the dreams and goals directing my future. Without hope, I would have never made sense of this obstacle. Cancer is now a part of my biography. I have been given a second chance at life and apply this concept in all that I do.

• • •

In January, she relapsed again. She went to St. Jude's in Memphis for chemotherapy. She searched for a new marrow donor.

From her online journal, she sent reminders about the Seminole Relay for Life scheduled for this month. She asked friends and family for Target gift cards so her mother could buy Clorox, Lysol wipes and Swiffer mop pads, and so Emily could get some DVDs to watch, cute bandannas to wear and grenadine and soda to drink.

She had recently been accepted to Duke University. She dreamed of becoming a pediatric oncologist. She wanted to double major in premed and journalism. The latter would give her skills to deliver medical information succinctly, in a way that would make people listen.

On Feb. 15 in the hospital, Emily felt low, questioning her college plans.

That day, her mother, Tricia Lester, opened an e-mail — Emily had been chosen, along with four other local students, to receive a St. Petersburg Times Barnes Scholarship, awarded each year to high school seniors who have overcome obstacles. Students get up to $60,000 over four years for college.

Emily, who competed with 264 other students, became more determined than ever to get better and attend Duke. She wanted to have a senior picture taken, even as clumps of hair fell out. Her family asked for prayers as Emily walked her own thin line.

Early Saturday morning, Emily Elizabeth Lester died. She was 18.

I believe my life has played out the way God intended.

Staff writer Michael Maharrey contributed to this report. Stephanie Hayes can be reached at or (727) 893-8857.

Facts about bone marrow donation

• Each day, more than 6,000 people battling leukemia, lymphoma and other blood-related diseases search the National Marrow Donor Program registry, hoping to find a match enabling them to receive a life-saving bone marrow transplant.

• Registration involves swiping a cotton swab on the inside of the potential donor's cheek. A lab test determines tissue type; the information is entered into the registry, where doctors around the world can search for matches for their patients.

• Only about 30 percent of patients needing bone marrow transplants find suitable matches from family members, leaving the other 70 percent to depend on the registry for a match.

• About 88 percent of whites find a suitable donor through the registry. The odds are worse for minorities, with only about 66 percent finding a match.

• Tissue type is inherited, and patients are far more likely to match someone of the same ethnicity.

• If matched with a patient, donors begin a process of outpatient surgery, typically performed under general anesthesia and consisting of one to four small incisions over the back of the pelvic bones. The doctor inserts a hollow needle through the incision to withdraw marrow. Most donors go home the same day, although some may require an overnight hospital stay.

• Side effects from donation may include lower back pain, swelling, stiffness and bleeding at the collection site. Most donors fully recover within a couple of weeks.

Sources:, National Marrow Donor Program, Florida Blood Services

Times scholarship winner Emily Lester loses cancer battle 04/05/08 [Last modified: Sunday, April 13, 2008 9:40am]
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