ST. LOUIS – She stayed for pictures. She stayed for hugs. After waiting eleven months for this night, Saint Louis University cheerleader Emily Evans was in no hurry to leave.
Diagnosed with cancer in her left leg last February, Evans made an emotional return to Chaifetz Arena Thursday night to rejoin the group that helped her get to where she was today.
Eleven months to the day since she sat in a room at Saint Louis University Hospital and was told she had a cancerous bone tumor near her left knee, Evans was back in her cheerleading uniform and dancing with her teammates at center court.
And she soaked in every second of it. When the final buzzer had sounded, the final song had been played and most had left to go home, Evans remained to hug teammates and visit with friends she hadn’t seen in several months. It was as if she didn’t want the night to end.
“Just being back here and jumping right into everything feels so good,” Evans told FOXSportsMidwest.com. “It’s where I belong now.
“I can’t even put it into words. It was one of the best nights of my life. Being welcomed back to Chaifetz and to the community just means so much to me because they mean so much to me. A standing ovation at Chaifetz has to be the best moment of my life. That was amazing.”
The date was Feb. 10, 2012, to be exact, when persistent knee pain turned out to be something much more serious. Emily, a freshman, was diagnosed with Osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor that often develops as teenagers mature into adults. The possibility existed that she could lose her leg.
After a moment of shock and stunned silence and a trip to nearby Vito’s Sicilian Pizzeria, the Evans family quickly turned their attention towards getting Emily healthy.
“We’ll never forget that day, going to Vito’s and bringing her back food and saying we were so thankful that our daughter was diagnosed with cancer in just one part of her body,” said her mother Jane Evans, who along with her father Todd sat front row at Thursday’s game. “It was just in her leg. We had the conversation with her immediately upon diagnosis. She wiped her tears away in like ten minutes and said, ‘what are we going to do about this? How do I get this out of me?’”
Emily immediately returned home to Cleveland, Ohio, and underwent ten weeks of chemotherapy treatment to shrink the tumor and kill any other cancer cells that may have spread. Then came a nine-hour limb salvation operation on May 14 when she received a radical re-sectioning of her left femur and a new knee.
Then came the long road to recovery and the many painful days and nights.
“We didn’t have any history with cancer or anything like this so when we went to that doctor and he’s talking about saving her leg, that kind of hit us,” her father Todd Evans said. “What you do you mean, aren’t you just going to take the tumor out? We had to understand how serious it was. There were times where we thought what was it going to mean and that was one of them for sure.
“All along the way she continued to get healthy but she would keep saying, ‘Do you think I’m going to be able to walk normal? Can I run? What can I do?’ And we kept saying lets just get you healthy and we’ll see.”
And Emily did just that. She got a little bit better day-by-day, looking ahead at the big picture on days that weren’t going as well. She stayed busy by writing a blog to chart her progress for her family and friends. At last check it had received more than 200,000 hits.
The entire Saint Louis University community rallied around Emily. When the Billikens were in nearby Columbus, Ohio, for the first round of the NCAA Tournament last March, the SLU Athletics Department paid for a bus to take the cheerleading and dance team to Cleveland to surprise her in the hospital.
“The support Emily has had has made the difference to her,” Jane said. “She has been told she’s been an inspiration and she certainly has to us and a lot of people. She was a first year Saintsation cheerleader and she had completed one semester before being diagnosed in February. We are overwhelmed by the amount of support she’s had in just one semester at Saint Louis University.
“She’s not a division one, fourth year basketball player that this university rallied around. She was an incoming freshman cheerleader and I don’t want to diminish that, but it really speaks volumes about Saint Louis University and probably our daughter and who she is as a person.”
After a round of scans and tests in December signaled she was cancer free, Emily received clearance to return to Saint Louis for the spring semester. Jane and Todd drove her back on Tuesday and helped her move back into her dorm. They watched proudly Thursday in what was their first Billikens game in person.
“Whenever she got a text or an email from anyone back here, it just brought her to life,” Todd said. “I look over there and she looks great and we’re happy she made it through, but it was tough. To do what she’s doing right now, she couldn’t have done it without all this help here.
“It sounds cliché to say that but I don’t think anybody knows the impact they’ve had on us and our daughter to get her where she is. For being complete outsiders, we’re just thrilled. We love this place. We love the people. We’re amazed.”
Emily used a return to the cheerleading squad as motivation for her recovery and spent the past several weeks practicing dance routines and cheers at her house in Cleveland.
The Billikens surprised Emily by honoring her during the first timeout of Thursday’s game. She received a lengthy standing ovation when introduced to the crowd while a short video was played on the scoreboard that showed support from those inside the SLU Athletics Department.
A bouquet of flowers was given to both Emily and Jane. It may have been the first Billikens game for Todd and Jane but certainly one they won’t soon forget. The parents planned to leave early Friday morning to return home to Cleveland.
Emily will stay behind.
“I’m freaking out about leaving them because we’ve obviously gotten closer then we already were,” Emily said. “I wish they could stay here with me.”
Evans will return to class when they start Monday and can resume her normal life again. She won’t run but can still work out and find other ways to stay in shape. Her treatments are over and she has just one post-treatment scan and blood work test remaining in March.
“I’m done,” Emily said, smiling just like she had all throughout the night. “I’m completely done. It’s pretty awesome. Everything is clear as of now. It feels pretty good to beat cancer.”
It feels just as good for the family, friends and those at SLU that supported her every step of the way.