Tiny but mighty: Pediatric cancer survivor conquers illness, half-marathons to raise awareness

ANCHORAGE (KTUU) - Despite hundreds of people running in this weekend Anchorage RunFest, one small athlete stands out from the rest - and it's not only because of her blazing-fast speed.

Emily Burpee, of Palmer, and her father Adam toed the line for Sunday’s Skinny Raven Half-Marathon. The 13.1-mile race is the six-year-old’s second half-marathon, and - if she has her way - certainly won't be her last.

“She was like, 'Dad, I’m going to do the marathon with Grandma," Adam said. "'No you’re not!' And she is like, 'Yes, I am."

Leading up to the race, the pair went back and forth before Adam would finally give in to his daughter's wishes.

“We have this little bond thing that - I don’t know, every dad has their own thing with their daughter,” he said. “We have a little bond that is just ours.”

Adam, though, was afraid his daughter might not finish the race, not because of the long distance, but instead, because of her previous battle with a rare childhood illness. She's also missing sections of her kidneys.

When Emily was just four months old, her parents noticed something was wrong with her health. Things seemed odd, but doctors mostly dismissed her symptoms.

“At first, we thought it was stomach issues, and then her formula, and then the ear infections,” said Renee Burpee, Emily's mom.

The family persisted, demanding answers as Emily’s symptoms worsened. A few months later, doctors finally diagnosed her with Wilms' tumor, a kidney cancer. Also known as nephroblastoma, the illness is rare overall, but found most commonly in young children.

“It was heart-wrenching, and heart-lifting at the same time,” said Renee. “Had she gone home that day, she would have died, and if we had not raised concern, they would have sent us home.”

There was little time to dwell on the diagnosis of the illness as the family raced Emily to Providence Children’s Hospital.

“We were met at the door by to oncologist and a surgeon," Renee said, "and they told us that her best chance at survival would be to be on a plane to Seattle in the next 24 hours."

They immediately hopped on a plane to Washington for treatment, but before things could get better, they got worse: With the cancer already at Stage V, doctors estimated Emily only had a 5 percent chance of living, since she had a rare form of the cancer in not one but both of her kidneys.

“That was probably the longest 17 days that I ever dealt with,” Adam said.

Over the next few months, Emily would receive rigorous care, including more than two weeks in a medically induced coma, 26 weeks of chemotherapy, and four surgeries to repair her kidneys.

Light at the end of the tunnel arrived, though as the family began to see encouraging results from her treatment.

“She’s resilient, and you have to follow her, or you’ll get stuck in her dust,” Renee said.

After nine months in the Seattle Children’s Hospital's Ronald McDonald House, her cancer was finally in remission, and Emily was able to return to Alaska with a new lease on life.

The cancer survivor and her father even went on a road trip through Canada; Make-A-Wish flew them to Florida, where Emily was princess for a day at Disney World.

“She danced around the park," Renee said. "I never saw someone rock sleeping beauty like Emily could."

This passion and persistence for life would soon lead Emily to where she is today: Running half-marathons and raising awareness for cancer while doing it.

“I just want to run," Emily said, "because it helps people with cancer."

She has a plethora of groups she runs for now. Katie’s Handprint is one of those organizations, and it supports Alaskan families impacted by childhood cancer. She said she hopes to run at least one more in the near future.

Catch the Channel 2 Late Edition on Sunday, August 19, to see the story by Sports Director Patrick Enslow.