By Rubin E. Grant
Emily Knerr didn’t grow up dreaming about becoming a high school homecoming queen. She was too busy trying to survive two bouts with ovarian cancer.
So, when she was announced as Hoover’s homecoming queen during the Bucs’ football game against Oak Mountain on Sept. 18, she was stunned. She was presented as a member of the senior class homecoming court and was escorted by her dad, Ryan Knerr.
“It was definitely a surprise,” Emily said. “I wasn’t expecting it. It was exciting for sure. All the other girls were so excited for me. They ran over and gave me the biggest hugs.
“It means a lot to me. It makes me realize people do recognize all the effort you have put into having good character and that being a good person shows.”
For Emily’s mother, Amanda, the moment was extra special, especially seeing her 17-year-old daughter’s reaction.
“It meant the world to her that her peers would vote for her to be homecoming queen at such a large school,” Amanda Knerr said. “She has overcome so much.
“Emily has never wanted to use cancer as an excuse. She has always fought hard to not play the victim. Nothing holds her back. She wants to achieve.”
Oct. 7 marked the 11-year anniversary of Emily’s first cancer diagnosis, in 2009. She was 6. It began with stomach aches and leg pain. Doctors suspected appendicitis, ordered an ultrasound and decided she needed surgery because they discovered a tumor.
After surgery, the doctors told her parents it was cancer and it had ruptured, contaminating her entire abdomen. The 10-centimeter tumor in Emily’s stomach turned out to be small cell carcinoma of the ovary. The disease had a 94% mortality rate at the time.
The Knerr family was in the process of moving from Miami to Birmingham. Once they had moved, Emily was admitted to Children’s of Alabama, underwent three major surgeries, six rounds of aggressive chemotherapy, 30 days of radiation, 60 days of Avastin therapy and a stem-cell transplant, which led to major complications, before she was declared cured in January 2011.
But in November 2015, just before her 13th birthday, while she was a student at Bumpus Middle School, Emily learned the cancer was back after being in remission for more than five years. She had to go through treatment all over again.
“I was pretty upset,” Emily said. “I didn’t want to do it all over again.”
She had surgery, lost all her hair, her eyelashes and eyebrows.
When the anniversary of her first diagnosis came around last week, Emily took a moment to reflect on her ordeal.
“It’s crazy to think it’s been 11 years,” Emily said. “It seems like my whole life has revolved around cancer. At some points, it doesn’t feel like it’s been that long, but it’s also like I’ve never been without cancer.”
The day before the homecoming game, Emily learned she had clean scans. She had been off treatment and cancer-free for three years.
“This year has been so challenging, but in typical Emily fashion, she makes the best of her circumstances,” Amanda Knerr wrote on Facebook. “Our family is very accustomed to living with uncertainty, fear, and in isolation. We learned a long time ago that we need to live every day despite our circumstances. Every single day counts, and life is too short to live in or make decisions based on fear.
“In turn, Emily has had a wonderful six months and she’s happier than I have ever seen her. Her senior year is looking different than a normal senior year but she is making priceless memories anyway.”
After being named homecoming queen, Emily had to get up the next morning to go run in a cross-country meet, the Oak Mountain Invitational at Heardmont Park. She runs cross-country and track at Hoover. This is her second year on the varsity team, but this is the first year she gets to run in every race.
“She’s just another person on the team,” said Devon Hind, Hoover’s cross-country and track coach. “I don’t look at her as a cancer survivor. Some of the other runners on the team don’t even realize she’s a cancer survivor.
“She’s worked hard to earn her spot on the varsity. She’s a mid-pack runner and she does all right for herself. I know I’m always going to get the best out of her when she’s running.”
This fall, the Bucs are competing during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has been interesting.
“It’s definitely been a chaotic year,” Emily said. “I’m trying not to be too stressed.”
Last Saturday, Emily helped Hoover finish fifth in the Helena Invitational. She was sixth among Hoover’s runners, finishing the 5K race with a time of 23:29.82.
Running has been therapeutic for Emily since she began in the seventh grade.
“I think running got me through it the second time,” she said. “There’s a huge running community and they helped me get through it. Running helps keep me mentally sane.”
“I think it saved her,” Amanda Knerr said. “It’s given her purpose, drive and health.”
Emily and Hind have developed a bond since she was in middle school.
“She’s been through a lot,” Hind said. “I was at the hospital when she was sick and saw how disappointed she was when she wasn’t able to run. I am thrilled for her to be out there now.”
Hind wasn’t at the homecoming game when Emily was crowned queen, but he saw her the next day at the Oak Mountain meet.
“It was really exciting and I was thrilled for her,” Hind said. “When I saw her the next morning, I congratulated her and she had a huge smile on her face. The day before (homecoming) she had gotten an all clear, so it was a pretty exciting day.”
Despite the all-clear, Emily still has thoughts of the cancer returning.
“It’s definitely a struggle,” she said. “I think about it a little bit, but I’m living life to the fullest. I don’t worry about it until it’s time for a scan.”
She receives plenty of support from her family, including her younger sisters, Anna, 14, and Casey, 12.
“I love them,” Emily said. “We have a close relationship. I would like to say they look up to me. They’ve always been there for me. I have loving support at home.”
With all she’s been through, Emily has become extremely close to her mother.
“I think my mom and I are similar in a lot of ways,” Emily said. “We spent a lot of time together, especially when I was in the hospital. We deal with things differently. Sometimes I think it’s harder on her than me.”
Emily’s parents started the Hope for Autumn Foundation in 2012 after Emily’s first bout with cancer. The foundation financially assists families battling childhood cancer, funds childhood cancer research and raises awareness of childhood cancer.
The foundation will host the Swing for Hope Annual Golf Tournament on Oct. 26 at the Inverness Country Club. Registration begins at 8 a.m., and the tournament begins at 9:30 a.m. with a shotgun start. All proceeds will benefit the Hope for Autumn Foundation.
Emily serves as president of the junior board of the foundation.
“I love being involved with the Hope for Autumn Foundation,” she said. “I feel like I can contribute to children who are going through something similar to what I have. It’s a good way of helping children with childhood cancer.”