If you were to search for Emily Whitehead (C '27) on the Internet, you'd undoubtedly come across descriptions like “cancer survivor,” “first pediatric patient to receive CAR T cell therapy,” and “living miracle.” However, if you asked Emily Whitehead herself, she would tell you that those labels are just a fragment of her identity: “There's so much more to me than cancer.” Ten years ago, Emily received groundbreaking treatment at the University of Pennsylvania that garnered worldwide attention. Now, having come full circle, she returns to Penn as a freshman, prepared to embark on a new adventure.
Emily was an energetic five–year–old with a penchant for spirited Nerf gun battles with her cousin—the occasional bruise was par for the course. What concerned her mom, a researcher at Penn State University, was the sheer quantity and persistence of her bruises. Quickly, their concern escalated into alarm, and Emily was rushed to the hospital. Within a mere 24 hours, the doctors diagnosed her with acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). The abruptness and severity of this news sent shockwaves through the Whiteheads' world. Just two weeks prior, Emily had visited her pediatrician who had declared her in perfect health.
Emily’s cancer was relentless. After two grueling relapses, a postponed bone marrow transplant, and ineffective rounds of chemotherapy, her medical team reached a heartbreaking decision: They were ready to discharge her for hospice care. Not ready to accept the loss of their daughter, Emily’s parents sought a second opinion at the Children's Hospital of Pennsylvania (CHOP), where an innovative CAR T cell trial had just opened.
The first pediatric patient to be enrolled in the trial, Emily received an incredibly potent dose of the drug, a dose no other pediatric patient would receive. It would be two weeks before she would regain consciousness. On her seventh birthday, Emily woke up cancer–free.
The cause of the coma, doctors later discovered, was that the therapy had been too effective, eradicating an astounding three pounds of tumors at once. “After enduring 22 months of unsuccessful chemotherapy, just 23 days following the T cell therapy, I was declared cancer–free,” Emily says.
Emily's medical team had a sense that her story was one worth sharing, and so they documented every aspect of it. After a short month of quiet, her family was catapulted into the spotlight. Emily's dad received a phone call from the New York Times inquiring if Emily's story could be featured on the front page. Admittedly unsure of what he was signing up for, her dad agreed, setting in motion a media whirlwind that thrust Emily into the public eye. She would become the subject of four award–winning documentaries, the subject of Praying for Emily, a book chronicling her recovery, and the co–founder of the Emily Whitehead Foundation.
The Emily Whitehead Foundation emerged from the Whitehead family's own experiences during Emily's treatment, where they confronted a significant lack of resources for pediatric patients with ALL. Their mission is unequivocal: to ensure no other family has to navigate the challenges they did without resources.
In her capacity as the co–founder of the foundation, Emily has not only nurtured a deep connection within the community of over 20,000 individuals who have undergone the now FDA–approved CAR–T cell therapy, but she has also offered support system to those who have faced similar struggles. Beyond her organizational efforts in arranging programs and fundraisers, Emily has become a vital resource for countless children globally who reach out to her via Instagram. "And these little kids,” she says, “they looked at me like I'm some kind of superhero. I'm just, like, I don't really feel like that.”
Though Emily's life is continually shaped by her work as an advocate and by her own battle with cancer, she emphasizes that “being in interview mode is just one part of who I am. There's a lot more." While her journey often placed her in front of the camera, she found true passion behind the lens as a photographer herself. "Growing up around cameras has definitely influenced me," she reflects, "but what I hope to express through my photography is more of who I really am—not just a cancer survivor."
In 2019, Emily was approached by Steven Spielberg’s team, who asked for access to the yearly photos Emily takes marking her cancer–free milestones. These photos, along with her inspiring narrative, were integrated into a short film showcased at the Comcast Center in Philadelphia. This experience paved the way for a personal meeting with Spielberg and an unforgettable day on the set of West Side Story, solidifying Emily's desire to pursue photography in the world of cinema as a career. Emily “still think[s] about that today like just how crazy it was to be there. I was just sitting there and watching a movie being made by the greatest director of all time.”
Like most first–year students, Emily is still undecided as to what major she is going to pursue. What she does know is that her interest lies at the intersection of the sciences and arts, specifically environmental studies and writing. She is particularly excited to explore academics at Penn, an institution that has taken on different meanings at every stage of her life and where she sees herself figuring out how to fit all of the pieces of her identity together. “I can’t even process that I am a student here now,” she says.
While Emily's life has been profoundly shaped by her unique life experiences, her journey continues to unfold as she embarks on a new chapter at Penn. "Being a cancer survivor has shaped me in ways I wouldn't trade for anything. I've had so many incredible experiences, and all of these fellow survivors, myself included, wouldn't have had this journey any other way.”