Blue Star brightens the way
April 7, 2011
When she was 11 years old, Emily Garcia discovered she had a rare and aggressive form of cancer. Today, at 19, she is the face of the Blue Star Foundation.
Started by the Grand County Blues Society, Blue Star, based in Winter Park, has grown into a nationwide program dedicated to connecting young cancer patients to the guitars of their dreams.
Garcia, who lives in south of Houston, Texas, received her Blue Star guitar after one of many surgeries.
“I wasn’t able to go to cheerleading as much … The guitar really helped me cope, kept me distracted.”
Her first sheets of music were Taylor Swift songs.
“It really does give you a creative outlet stress reliever. You can take it out on the guitar. It’s really special whenever you are giving it to somebody who really needs it at the time they are going through,” she said.
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In 2002, doctors discovered a tumor in Garcia’s right leg when she started limping for no apparent reason. She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma (bone cancer). She underwent intensive high dosage chemotherapy for seven months and then had surgery to amputate her right leg just above the knee, followed by another six months of chemo. She finished treatment in November 2003.
Two months later, she went on a ski trip for amputees and fell, fracturing her femur. She skied around for the rest of the weekend in a sit ski before realizing that her leg was broken.
She spent the next three months in a body cast and then began rehab, learning to walk on her prothesis that spring. She fell again in September, fracturing her leg again. Doctors started her on weekly IV treatments to strengthen her bones after the cancer treatment had further weakened her bones.
In February 2004, Garcia relapsed. Doctors found a tumor in her left lung. She underwent surgery in May and began chemotherapy again. This time her kidneys shut down and she spent several weeks in the hospital undergoing painful treatments to restart her kidneys.
In September 2004, she returned to school for the first time since her diagnoses and became a cheerleader for her school. Things were great, for a while. But, in January 2005, the tumor reappeared in her lung, taking over almost the entire organ. Garcia started treatment again. That summer, she was on radiation treatment for seven weeks.
She returned to school in the fall, cheerleading between treatments. It wasn’t until the fall of 2007 that the tumors had shrunk enough to do surgery. The surgery involved removing five ribs and a large portion of her lung.
Afterwards, she continued treatments and rehab so that she could cheer again.
She finished treatment in May 2008. Pain returned, but this time it wasn’t clear why. Doctors looked for months before discovering a tumor in her intestines in September. She had the tumor and a portion of her intestines removed in December, and began yet another round of chemo in January 2009.
She got through those tough times by playing her guitar, drawing and writing in her journal.
Garcia had her most recent surgery last March and started a new round of treatment.
“One year ago,” she repeated, with a pause.
Her cancer is considered stable. “The tumors haven’t done anything in a year,” she said. “I have chemo every other month.”
Garcia said her outlook on life changed somewhere along the way.
“I’ve been in treatment for so long,” Garcia said. “At first, I was really focused on that. I figured I’d worry about doing things later. And then I realized, I can’t just let cancer overrule my life, I need to be doing other things. Yes, I have cancer. But I need to do other things. Now, I’m focusing on the things that make me happy. My family and friends. My health can change. I’m OK with that. I can get through that. I need to get back to living my life like a normal 19-year-old.”
Garcia lives with her parents and attends community college down the street from her house, which allows her to continue her chemotherapy treatments and make her regular doctor appointments.
“I hope to start off there and hope to transfer in the fall,” she said, adding that she even knows what she wants to study: “I’ve gained interest in theater and film production with the things I’ve been able to do – the opportunities given to me – that have made me interested in it and learning more about it.”
Garcia now travels with the Sunshine Kids Foundation, helping to inspire young cancer patients. She has been filmed for a documentary for Ohio University about care for cancer patients and the patient’s perspective. She also has been a guest twice on the Rachael Ray Show.
In December, Ray surprised her with a visit from her musical inspiration, Taylor Swift. Garcia was rendered sufficiently speechless.
Ray discovered Garcia during an interview of cancer patients and their siblings at her summer camp.
I asked Garcia what makes her the kind of person that somebody like Rachael Ray notices in a room full of people: “Every cancer patient is inspiring beyond belief, but those around my age aren’t usually willing to talk about it. At one point I was like, ‘People should know.’ It helps them learn and understand and maybe helps (the patient) with what they are going through.” she said. “If my story can really help other young adults and teens with what they are going through, then I should tell it.”
As to how she deals with pain, Garcia said: “The way I look at things, what I tell my friends at the hospital, ‘Your pain might be bad, and you think it’s bad, but it could be worse. This pain is not as bad as it could be.’ Whenever you are going through something bad, think about all of the things you ever dreamed of and wanted to do – What is there to look forward to? – That’s what I focus on. I see myself doing all these things I ever dream of.”
Garcia’s newest dream is to attend a major university and be in the film business. She wants to travel.
“I want to get married one day and do all those things. I can really see myself doing these things.”
In addition to gymnastics, music, journaling and art, one of the things Garcia enjoys most is “talking with other young teens who are going through what I’m going through, what treatments I’m on. My doctor likes to give my email address out. The least I can do is talk to another patient about it.”
About her trip to Winter Park this week, Garcia said she plans to ski with the National Sports Center for the Disabled, which has donated all the equipment and instruction for her trip.
Garcia is traveling to Winter Park with her mother Samantha.
“My mom has been with me through everything. She stays at the hospital. My dad stays with my brother and sister. My mom goes through every single thing I go through without being the one that actually gets stuck or gets chemo.”
AquaSol Eco Spa in Cooper Creek Square has donated a mother/daughter spa day. Beaver Village has donated lodging. Carvers Bakery has offered breakfast every day of Garcia’s visit and Rudi’s deli has also donated meals. EE Farms is providing groceries for the visit. Richard Hawes of Evergreen donated the plane tickets. And, Smokin’ Moe’s donated dinner one night.
John Catt of the Blue Star Foundation hopes some other local businesses will be able to step up to help make the Garcias’ visit to Winter Park a memorable one.
“Emily was selected to be the Blue Star Ambassador because of her courageous battle and dignity,” Catt said. “She has been an inspiration to everyone that works with Blue Star Connection.”
– Reid Armstrong can be reached at 970-887-3334 ext. 19610.