Soccer ball leads to teen’s brain tumor discovery

Emma playing soccer

MURRAY, KY — When you buy a St. Jude Dream Home ticket, you win a chance at a house — but you’re also saving lives.

Emma Warren can attest to that. St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis has tracked her progress since she had surgery to remove a brain tumor. The goal is to learn how and why she developed it. It was a soccer ball, though, that lead to that tumor’s discovery in the first place.

The Warrens have a good life. But it could have turned out much differently.

The Warren family

“We were lucky that day she got hit in the head,” said Todd Warren, Emma’s dad.

“How miraculous that actually was, from a concussion, to finding a lemon size tumor, to actually changing my whole life,” Emma said. “I remember every detail of that like it was yesterday.”

Four years ago, then 16-year-old Emma took a hit to the head during a soccer game.

“Suddenly went down on the field, started throwing up, and went — rushed to the ER in Murray,” Emma explained.

Two weeks later, Emma had a followup MRI. The results were not what the Warrens expected.

“Well, I started crying immediately, because I knew when the doctor asked her to leave the room. I knew right then something was wrong,” Emma’s mom Valerie said.

“They said I had a brain tumor, and ‘You have three hours to get to Memphis. Go home and get packed,'” Emma said.

Doctors removed Emma’s tumor, leaving a scar.

“One of the longest rides to Memphis I ever remember,” Todd said, recalling the drive to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital, where Emma had her surgery. “We were just scared to death.”

The evidence of what Emma went through isn’t easy to spot today.

“My scar is on the right side,” said Emma. “It goes all the way down to my ear, and um, you can feel the screws in there.”

She shared a picture of the tumor that was removed from her head. It wasn’t cancerous, but at some point it would have given her seizures and maybe even killed her.

This is the tumor doctors removed from Emma’s head. It was the size of a lemon.

“It was the size of a lemon,” Todd recalled the doctor explaining after the surgery. “And that he thought they’d gotten it all, but then there was the ‘but.’ And that was the but that she had had a slight stroke during surgery.”

“I couldn’t walk, couldn’t get up,” Emma said. “I had to rely on my parents to walk me to the bathroom, take a shower.”

It was a difficult recovery — one she’s still dealing with now. She has weakness on her left side and issues with her short-term memory.

“Which affects school, and work, and pretty much everything on a daily basis,” Emma said.

It’s not slowing her down, though. She’s attending Murray State University, and St. Jude is a big part of her life and her parents’ lives.

Recovery for Emma was difficult. She suffered a stroke during surgery, which affected her left side and memory.

“I have to do check-ups every year to make sure the tumor doesn’t grow back,” Emma said. “So, we go to St. Jude to do MRI check-ups, and we do physical therapy and psychological therapy.”

“They took care of us, too. They had a place that we would stay, and they feed us and they pay for our travel,” Todd said.

St. Jude is also tracking Emma’s case.

“Because of my experience, that can potentially help them find a cure,” Emma said.

Despite having a brain tumor, she feels lucky.

“I still have a life to live,” Emma said.

St. Jude was, and is, a big part of the Warrens’ life.

Emma had a dysembryoplastic neuroepithelial tumor, or DNET. Dr. Frederick Boop, the chief of the Pediatric Neurosurgery Division in the Surgery Department at St. Jude, removed the tumor. He said it’s one of the better kinds of tumors to have. Once removed, it doesn’t usually come back.

Boop said 30 years ago, most children with brain tumors could expect a 30- to 35-percent cure rate. St. Jude has changed all that, though.

“And in my lifetime, in my professional lifetime, we are now up to about 80-percent survival for most kids with brain tumors,” Boop explained. “Everyone here (St. Jude) has a passion for taking care of kids with cancer.”