Every week a member of the Oberst family places an empty yellow bucket outside their door in Brookfield. Like clockwork, the bucket disappears and reappears full of games, movies, snacks and other small gifts. The routine is just one initiative of "Team Emily" intended to keep up the family's spirits.
Emily Oberst, 13, is in her fifth month battling Ewing's sarcoma, a bone cancer that doctors found in her tibia after she complained of pain in her shins while playing basketball. Emily has had surgery on the area and must undergo chemotherapy for about another five months, hoping to kill any abnormal cells that could bring the cancer back.
There is about a 70 to 75 percent survival rate for patients like Emily, who have undergone chemotherapy and surgery before the cancer could move to other body parts, according to the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative.
From the start, Emily's mom Melissa said they've tried to take it one step at a time with an optimistic attitude.
"This is what we're dealt," Melissa said. "You have to live each day out to its fullest and we have to be positive."
Becoming a Fighter
As the family digested information from websites and doctors, and coped with the whirlwind of hospital visits and Emily's growing symptoms from the chemotherapy, they realized they would have to sacrifice many aspects of their lives.
"In essence, an ESFT patient and his/her family is giving up one year of life to hopefully get the rest of them back," reads the Liddy Shriver website, a resource the Oberts have greatly relied on.
Undergoing chemotherapy sometimes several times a week, Emily had to stop going to school at , and quit the basketball team she loved. Her brothers, two 10-year-olds and one 9-year-old, assumed places at her side when they could, to help her move around and get things around the house. And Emily's parents spent as much time as possible learning about the cancer and helping her cope with it.
One thing that worried Melissa was that as Emily missed more school, she would lose touch with her support network which was more important than ever. But as the news of the cancer sunk in with the community, the family's friends, neighbors and strangers responded with an upswelling of support that hasn't stopped growing.
"The battle is a lot easier when you have people walking by your side," Melissa said. "It's hard to believe people care that much. I think it's a testament to this community, and it's a testament to how many lives Emily has touched."
Team Emily Joins the Battle
When parents of Emily's friends found out about the sarcoma, they quickly got together and organized teams to support the family. Some help take care of Emily's brothers, some help sanitize the house (because of Emily's compromised immune system), and some make meals. They call themselves "Team Emily."
"We came here for the school district, but little did we know it would be the community that was so great," Melissa said. "When I look back at the past year, I can't be mad at anything. Everyone has gone above and beyond our wildest expectations."
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In addition to the help, the house is often bustling with Emily's friends.
"My friends visit me all the time and they tell me all the gossip so it's not that bad," Emily said, laughing. "Once a day someone says, 'Can I visit?' Sometimes I have to say no because I'm so tired."
One of Emily's friends, Rachel Kolb, said the journey has made her realize how much she values her friendship with Emily.
"I want to be with her through this whole thing because I’m her good friend," Kolb said. "I don’t see her as much as I used to, but I think she knows I appreciate her more."
Kolb and other friends recently decided they wanted to do more to help.
"Sometimes she’ll be really good, and sometimes she can barely move and I feel so bad because I can’t do anything," Kolb said.
Determined to raise money for the Liddy Shriver Sarcoma Initiative, which supports sarcoma research, the group is organizing a fundraising concession stand for , a 5K run/walk on May 6 organized by Wisconsin Hills Middle School. They will be selling food, drinks and water bottles.
You can follow and support Emily's journey by visiting her Caring Bridge page.