photo by EAKIN HOWARD, Lincoln Journal-StarWahoo's Mya Emerson goes up for a block against Norris in a volleyball match last season. A cancer diagnosis later ended Emerson's season.
'Mya is the definition of a Warrior': After cancer diagnosis derails her senior year, Wahoo's Emerson makes triumphant return to the track
WHS senior overcomes adversity with grace & a positive attitude
It was the type of news that any parent would dread hearing.
After months of doctor visits, different treatments and diagnoses that offered no concrete answers, Leah Emerson finally learned what had been affecting her daughter’s health — a cancerous mass in her sinus cavity.
Mya Emerson had been feeling the effects for months, starting with daily headaches, a swollen throat and pressure in her ear that refused to go away.
Just days into the start of her senior year at Wahoo High School, Emerson’s world was turned upside down.
“It was just beyond shocking; I don’t even know how to describe it because we didn’t see it coming at all,” Leah Emerson said.
There’s no doubt that the first days after the diagnosis were full of raw emotion for Mya Emerson. Once she got her treatment plan, though, there was a different focus on her mind.
“At first we were all kind of shocked because we didn’t expect it to happen to us,” Mya Emerson said. “After that, we were just motivated to get it dealt with and wanted to stay positive throughout the whole thing which really helped.”
Leah Emerson (left) embraces her daughter, Wahoo's Mya Emerson, during a May 3 track and field meet at Plattsmouth High School. (photo by JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star)
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As a talented multi-sport athlete, Mya Emerson had a junior year worth celebrating.
She played every single set of Wahoo’s state championship volleyball season where the Warriors didn’t lose a single match, followed by a trip to the state track and field championships in the high jump that spring.
With all of its opportunities for memories and celebration, Emerson was planning on having an exciting senior year, too.
But, after just one week, volleyball matches and English classes turned into doctor visits and CT scans. At home in Wahoo, Emerson’s volleyball teammates were coming to terms with the fact that the same teammate and friend they’d shared the court with last week was now fighting for her physical health.
“We all were devastated, but the team's main priority moving forward was how we can support Mya through this journey,” Wahoo volleyball coach Katie Reeves said. “We wanted to make sure Mya knew she would always be a part of this team and have us to lean on.”
While treatments kept her away from school, Emerson still made it to many of Wahoo’s volleyball games where she saw her teammates wearing a red ribbon on their shoes in her honor. In her free time, Emerson became a scholar in the medical field, looking up and researching all the different treatments, procedures and side effects she’d have to endure in the coming weeks.
For Erik Emerson, that was a decidedly adult way for his teenage daughter to approach such a challenging situation.
“Mya accepted her diagnosis early on and I think it helped her because she didn’t dwell on it,” Erik Emerson said. “She had a very healthy, positive attitude right from the start and handled it a lot better than I would have at that age.”
Emerson’s treatments soon took her to one of the premier medical care facilities in the Midwest, the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. While there, Emerson underwent eight weeks of treatment that included six rounds of chemotherapy and a whole lot of hours of feeling drained.
When her treatments concluded on Jan. 24, Emerson was ready to sleep in her own bed and walk around her own house once again, a feeling that her father certainly shared.
“For the longest time she was gone during the week and we just didn’t have her in the house, so that first week where she was home was just amazing,” Erik Emerson said. “I have a lot of gratitude because when you sit in the waiting room of a cancer treatment hospital you see people young and old going through the worst experiences of their life. It just puts a lot of things in perspective.”
With Mya back at home and those long days of treatment finally over, it was time for the Wahoo senior to set her sight on a new goal — returning to the high jump in the spring.
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All those months of treatment were successful in driving the cancer out of Emerson’s body, but they also cost her much of the muscle and strength she’d worked hard to build over the last few years.
While she was ready to return to physical actives mentally, Emerson’s body didn’t always cooperate.
There are some effects that Emerson continues to deal with, such as nerve damage that causes numbness in hands and feet and some hearing loss.
Wahoo's Mya Emerson competes in the high jump during a May 3 track and field meet at Plattsmouth High School. (photo by JUSTIN WAN, Journal Star)
The frustration of starting over in the weight room like a beginner and still feeling tired all the time, well, it was just another challenge for Emerson to overcome.
“Usually I’ve been pretty fit and athletic, but after this, I was constantly tired and sleepy,” Mya Emerson said. “I had no strength at all so it was hard to get back in the weight room; I had to start all over again.”
It might have been a slow process for Emerson to start on the treadmill then the VertiMax before she could get back on the track again. But, there she was on April 1, jumping again at the Platteview Invite.
Emerson has competed in six track meets this season, with her season-best jump of 4 feet, 10 being good enough for a medal in two of those meets. Of course, her biggest supporters have been right there with front-row seats to cheer her on once again.
“We had no idea if she was going to be able to high jump again, so Mya definitely set that as a goal of hers,” Erik Emerson said. “We’re just happy she’s out there competing and doing something she loves.”
At the same time, it has been frustrating because Emerson knows what she’s accomplished in the past, namely a 5-2 PR in the high jump last season. This season has been more about finding happiness in just being out on the track rather than aiming for podium finishes or another trip to the state tournament.
“She was so excited to get back to track, and that was one of the best things because it gave her something to look forward to,” Leah Emerson said. “It’s been challenging but it’s exciting to watch her just enjoy the experience out there.”
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Throughout the entire experience, Emerson said she’s been humbled by the support the entire Wahoo community has shown her.
The Emerson family moved to Wahoo from Hastings three years ago, and they’re now tied to the school and town forever. Around the high school’s halls, Reeves said Emerson is always known for her kindness and bringing a smile to other’s faces.
Her senior classmates might have missed her presence in the fall, but they’ve enjoyed every moment of the spring together.
“Mya is the definition of a Warrior; she is relentless and has been such an inspiration to me and many others in the community,” Reeves said.
Recent weeks have brought a welcome return to normalcy around the Emerson household as Mya accomplishes many of the things she was looking forward to in August. That includes the track season, senior prom and her graduation from Wahoo on Sunday.
“She has such an awesome coaching staff and teammates, and really there’s not enough that can be said about the whole school and Wahoo community in terms of their support for her; it’s all been very humbling,” Leah Emerson said.
There will be future scans to be done and likely moments where Mya Emerson will need her fighting spirit again, but right now she’s like any other senior.
There are graduation parties to attend, movies to be watched and laughs to be shared in the coming weeks.
After an unforgettable senior year, Emerson will do it all with a perspective that few high schoolers could ever imagine.
“It was disappointing and scary at first because I was really excited for my senior year and spending time with my friends,” Emerson said. “Now I want to think of everything positively and I think that I only live once so I have to take these opportunities when I can.”
“I’m just more positive about life now.”
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