FLAGSTAFF – Many preteens start middle school, host sleepovers and play sports at 12 years old. For Emma Warner, that age marked a dramatic life change.
As soon as Warner set out to chase her dreams of swimming at the collegiate level, she was stopped in her tracks. Her Cottonwood Clippers swim club teammates had noticed a lump in her neck. Warner was left puzzled and immediately scheduled a doctor’s appointment.
Ultrasounds, blood tests and a biopsy followed. On Jan. 15, 2015, Warner received the diagnosis: papillary thyroid cancer.
“I was 12. It’s kind of hard to set in, what was happening to me,” said Warner, a junior breaststroke specialist for the Northern Arizona swim team. “So it kind of forces you to grow up a little bit because you have to understand what is happening to you. And that it’s something more than being sick. It’s a very serious disease that some people don’t get to experience, which I pray that nobody experiences. It’s a horrible disease.”
The traumatic episode only managed to pause Warner’s dreams, and the Mingus Union alum from Clarkdale has grown up more than a little as an inspiration for the NAU women’s swimming and diving team. But the journey from Cottonwood to Flagstaff required pure perseverance, determination and, most importantly, patience.
The initial diagnosis put swimming on the back-burner, along with Warner’s ability to go to school and live a seemingly normal life. The balance between recovery time from treatments and practice time at the pool was regularly set back by another treatment.
“She was kind of with us (the team) for two months, three months, off for a few weeks, and then back and forth a little bit,” said A. Jay Bronson, who was Warner’s former club coach with the Clippers. “So it was tough. I mean, as a coach, it was tough, just trying to keep her motivated, keep myself motivated.”
Shortly after her diagnosis, NAU swim coach Andy Johns learned about Warner through Bronson, who had spent time coaching as a student with Johns at NAU. Johns brought Warner on as an honorary member of the NAU swim team, not knowing five years later that Warner would sign her letter of intent with the Lumberjacks.
It made sense knowing her impressive swimming resume. During her freshman year at Mingus Union, she was featured in Swimming World magazine as an “Up and Comer.” She qualified for state championship competition in the event all four years and captured the title as a senior. She still holds the schoool record for the 100-meter breaststroke.
A new normal
Warner’s treatment has been grueling. So far, Warner has had three surgeries and three radioactive iodine treatments. Her first surgery doctors made incisions in her neck and removed her thyroid and surrounding lymph nodes. Following the surgery, Warner had her first radioactive iodine treatment.
Warner had to stick to a no-sodium diet, swallow three-inch pills and isolate for seven days due to being radioactive. Despite having to isolate, Warner wasn’t completely alone. Her mom provided comfort by sitting outside her door for conversation.
Warner had to relearn how to use her neck after her initial surgery, but she got back in the pool as quickly as she could, even if it just meant kicking on a kickboard in place of not swimming her usual breaststroke.
The cancer stuck around despite these initial treatments. Her second surgery consisted of opening her chest to remove more lymph nodes, followed by another 3-inch pill and self-isolation.
“I felt very alone,” Warner said. “I did suffer from depression and anxiety. I still suffer from that because it’s been a traumatic experience for me.”
After her second surgery and treatment, the cancer became even more invasive. Phoenix Children’s Hospital could no longer help Warner and transferred her to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, where she continues to be treated today. The doctors decided to do a third surgery – a total neck dissection of all lymph nodes, causing damage to Warner’s shoulder.
“I had some lymph nodes in there that he actually had to remove and cause damage to my left shoulder,” Warner said. “I have very minimal feeling in that shoulder. So I had to regain all motion of that shoulder. They had to operate into my sternum.”
Warner’s doctors discovered that the radioactive iodine treatments weren’t working due to the rare type of papillary cancer that she has called ret fusion. As an alternative, Warner gets yearly scans and treatments in the summers to fight the cancer in her chest, neck and lungs. Still, she manages to somehow swim and compete despite the obvious challenges
Last year, Warner underwent her toughest medical year when she found out the cancer had spread to her lungs. Defeated and struggling to breathe, she continued to get in the pool and practice, compete and win. Warner finished in third place in the 50 freestyle in February at the UNLV First Chance Invite.
“I lost oxygen. Most of the time I was having to do oxygen treatments after races,” Warner said. “It was just a very difficult process for me.”
On top of her breathing difficulties, Warner suffered kidney failure last spring and spent eight days in the hospital. Warner’s struggles became visible to her teammates last year, and the emotions of what she goes through started to set in.
“She has some rough days in the pool and seeing her struggle is difficult for us,” Johns said. “And I think sometimes it’s difficult for teammates. But she just keeps coming back, she keeps working hard and that’s the attitude that we want from everybody on our team, not just Emma.”
To avoid being seen as “the girl with cancer,” Warner didn’t fully open up to her teammates about the seriousness of her illness until last year.
From the start of her cancer battle, Warner has had the support of the NAU swim team, who always sent her messages ahead of her surgeries and treatments. Despite the uncertainty, the pain and the never-ending struggle, Warner gains her strength from her support.
“Genuinely, I had a very good support system throughout my entire process from when I was 12 to even now,” Warner said. “I had friends from school constantly FaceTiming me or sending me text messages. So it’s been those types of things that pushed me to keep going because other people supported me, and I didn’t want to let them down.”
Warner has never let cancer steal her passion for swimming and her spirit.
“I didn’t see (cancer) affect her. Her mindset was, ‘I’m here, I’m going to work hard,’” Bronson said. “Sometimes it’s hard just as a normal person to get up and go to work. And she’s dealing with cancer and traveling all around the country, it didn’t affect her in the slightest, which was a huge motivating factor for all of her peers as well.”
Her perseverance has not only motivated her peers, but her coaches. For Bronson, he had started to plateau in his career. But after coaching Warner, he was inspired to keep coaching and recently coached his high school team in Oregon to a championship.
“Whenever there’s a down moment or a downtime, I know, I’m going to look at her and say, ‘If she can keep going, there’s no reason that I can’t keep working hard and keep doing well, not only for her, but for everybody else,’ ” Bronson said. “And she really motivated and inspired me to continue coaching and continue moving forward.”
Her influence continues to spread around her community at NAU. Warner’s story spills over to everyone around her, especially those in the pool with her.
“She cares a lot about the sport, she’s passionate about the sport. It’s what she loves to do,” Johns said. “And so that spills over to most of our people in good ways. And so that helps our team appreciate opportunities. We talked a lot about being grateful for our opportunities, and I think she’s a prime example of doing that, and living that, and so it’s great to see but it’s hard to see her struggle.”
Warner pushes herself beyond her limits in life and in the pool. She supports those around her and is always behind the lane watching her teammates race.
“She’s very inspiring, even though she recently had just found out, it’s never going away,” said Haley Mayhew, Warner’s teammate and roommate. “It’s just amazing to see her out there training and racing, knowing what’s coming after or in the middle of the race when she has to get out and take her oxygen and sit there. It’s also really scary, because I don’t want her to really push her limits and get to that point where it could be dangerous.”
Conquering the mountain
Warner’s cancer may never go away, but she doesn’t let it change the way she lives her life. Her goal now is to just keep swimming. Warner wants to give her all every day in the pool, no matter what comes next.
“My journey is like a mountain that was placed in my path. That’s what I live by,” she said. “And every day that I get better, or that I complete a practice or that I live another day, I climb that mountain just a little bit more. And I won’t stop until I conquer that mountain. And that’s my main thing.”
Warner and the NAU swim team kicked off its season Sept. 23 with its annual Pentathlon and continue Oct. 7 in the annual Blue vs. Gold meet.
Warner continues to climb the mountain thrown her way at 12. She reminds herself often of all the different difficult battles everyone fights. And for her, cancer is just a part of her story.
“I want to make it known that anyone can achieve anything despite what you go through. Even if you are super stressed, you can get over that,” Warner said. “I know that anyone can get through anything.”