Emily VanKeuren has watched a few Super Bowls in her young life—more for the halftime show than the action on the field.
But this year, Emily tuned in for the commercials. One particular fourth-quarter commercial. The one she participated in.
The Hyundai Motor Co. flew Emily and her family to Minneapolis the last weekend in January to film a commercial focusing on young adult cancer survivors.
Thankfully, she is one of them.
Emily, 18, a Comstock Park High School senior, survived Hodgkin’s lymphoma. After a five-month bout, her doctor pronounced her cancer free in March.
Hyundai learned of her battle, and invited her and two other Spectrum Health Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital patients to Minneapolis for filming.
Although Emily didn’t appear in the commercial, she said she’s grateful she could be part of it.
“If I had the chance to do it all again, I definitely would,” she said. “It was incredible to see all of the other kids who did have the chance to be on the screen and inspire many people.”
Emily said she wouldn’t hesitate to let Hyundai use her footage in future commercials.
“It was exciting,” Emily said. “Filming was different every day. They asked me about my treatment and, if I had the chance to thank my doctors, what would I say.”
The answer to that question came easy for Emily, and what she would say to Jessica Foley, MD, a pediatric oncologist in charge of Emily’s cancer care: “I would say thank you, and tell her that she changed my life. That I’m here today because of her.”
In fall 2016, Emily noticed a lump in the area of her left collarbone.
“At first, I didn’t think much of it,” she said. “I thought it would go away with cream. I kept an eye on it for a couple of days.”
After all, her regularly scheduled annual physical was just a few days away.
But when her pediatrician saw the lump, he immediately sent her to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
“I think from the very beginning Dr. Foley knew exactly what we were dealing with,” said Emily’s mom, Pam VanKeuren.
Dr. Foley ordered a chest X-ray and CT scan.
“Those test results led to her needing a biopsy,” Pam said.
The biopsy results? Negative. Blood tests ordered by an infectious disease specialist came back within normal ranges.
Despite the test results, Dr. Foley’s suspicions persisted.
“We got a call from Dr. Foley,” Pam said. “She said, ‘I really want to see Emily back here. I’m really feeling like this is what I think it is. I want another biopsy.’”
By this time, Emily felt what she believed to be another lump forming, this time on the right side of her neck.
On October 21, 2016, the second biopsy revealed the culprit that Dr. Foley suspected—Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
“It was devastating,” Pam said. “You don’t know how to react. It was a scary, scary time. You just get that feeling of helplessness because there’s nothing you can do.”
Emily, who had made the varsity basketball team as a freshman, knew about overcoming odds. She also knew about battling back.
During her freshman year, she tore her ACL and had to undergo reconstruction surgery and months of rehab. She battled back in time to play her sophomore year.
“About six games into that season, she tore her other ACL,” Pam said. “She … got back into condition to play her junior year. Right before her season started, we got word of the cancer.”
Cancer blocked every shot she could have taken; every hope she had of playing.
When you’re a junior in high school, you should be hearing words like prom, ACTs and campus tours.
The word cancer shouldn’t be among them.
“It was heartbreaking, jaw-dropping,” Emily said of her diagnosis. “I wondered how things would be different, how I would deal with school, how normal my life would be. I was pretty confident most of the time, but there were some times I did think about (dying).”
She started chemotherapy on November 3 of that year. Within a month, she had lost all of her long, light brown, blondish hair.
She endured five months of chemo.
“It was exhausting,” Emily said. “Everything was day-to-day. There was no set schedule for anything because everything could change in a moment.”
She missed more than 50 days of school, including a college language arts class.
“It was hard, but I was able to keep my grades up,” Emily said. “I got a lot of help from my teachers and friends.”
On March 3, 2017, Emily received the greatest news of her young life. She had aced her cancer tests. Dr. Foley pronounced her cancer-free.
“It was the best news in the world,” Pam said.
Emily returns to Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital every three months for scans and blood work.
She’s been accepted into Grand Valley State University this fall, where she’ll study to become an elementary school teacher.
But until then, she’s thriving on the excitement of her senior year.
“I’m excited to be able to finish out the school year being healthy and having fun,” she said. “Spring break is coming up (a trip to Florida) and then graduation.”
And the unexpected excitement of being part of the commercial.
“It’s always something new,” Emily said. “I was extremely surprised. I didn’t believe it at first.”
Pam said their family has learned to embrace the unexpected, and learn from it.
Besides the commercial, her daughter was part of the Crowns of Courage ArtPrize entry, where an artist drew colorful henna patterns on the heads of cancer patients who had lost their hair. Fox Sports also interviewed her about her comeback.
“From a situation that was horrible, she fortunately has had a lot of cool opportunities come out of it,” Pam said. “I think the whole journey has brought us closer together. We’re just thankful she got through it.”