Neuroblastoma Survivor a Champion with a Heart of Gold

photo of Emily Hoskins with flowers and gold medal

Twenty-five-year-old Emily Hoskins' winning attitude has helped her overcome life's obstacles and taken her to Olympic glory – bringing home 2 gold medals in wheelchair basketball at the Paralympics in Athens and Beijing.

Emily, who grew up in Mascoutah, Illinois, has a bubbly personality and a bright outlook on life and accomplishing her goals. "When people ask me, 'Why are you in a wheelchair?' I say, 'I had cancer when I was born on my spinal cord.' To me, it's not that big a deal."

She adds: "I have two brothers who are able-bodied and I really wasn't treated any different from them. My parents treated me the same as you would treat any kid that wasn't ever sick. I was expected to do the same kind of things."

Determined from an Early Age

In January 1983, Emily was born with neuroblastoma, a cancer that affects the sympathetic nervous system and typically occurs in infants and young children. For Emily, it caused paralysis from the waist down.

Emily's mother, Linda, says there was barely time to process all of the information. "At the time, people kept saying, 'This must be incredibly hard. You must be so devastated,' she recalls. "We didn't have time to think that way. It's like, 'It's happening. We have to deal with it. We'll think about it later.'"

Her doctors recommended sending Emily for treatment to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Just 3 days old, Emily was started on chemotherapy for 4 months and then underwent surgery, which was successful.

When Emily was a year old, she went to a rehabilitation hospital for her paralysis. Her doctor stated that she would go to college, get married, have kids and lead a normal life.

"That was a turning point for us," says Linda. "That's what set us on the path that 'Emily can do anything she wants.'"

After Emily turned 2, she was put in walking braces for the first time. While a physical therapist explained that the walking process would take a couple of weeks, Emily had already started walking down the hall, her mother recalls. "That's how Emily was her whole life. No one ever told her she couldn't do something."

Emily doesn't remember any of her early cancer treatments. She went back to St. Jude's for annual check-ups until she was 17.

For the Love of the Game

In high school, Emily discovered her passion for wheelchair basketball by playing with a team in St. Louis, a couple hours from her home. "I loved it right away," she says, "but I was not very good at it."

She dedicated herself to practice and attended a summer wheelchair basketball camp, where the coach encouraged her to apply to the University of Illinois, home of the nation's top wheelchair basketball program. She got in and her team, the Fighting Illini, went on to win 4 consecutive national championships.

She developed tight friendships with her teammates, both on and off the court. "I've got friends who live all over the country," she says. "Even though I only see them every couple of months, I know these people would do anything for me and vice versa."

In 2004, Emily was named as an alternate for the Athens Paralympics and was called to compete with the U.S. team a week and a half before competition started. Her team won the games and took the gold medal home.

In April 2008, Emily began training for the Beijing games, spending 4 to 5 hours at the gym everyday. A starter in the line-up, she played a lot more than in the previous series.

"This time it meant a lot more," she said. "I knew what kind of work it would take to win another gold. I worked my butt off for it because I wanted it that bad."

Winning the gold was definitely the highlight of the experience, says Emily, "being up there with my teammates and knowing that all of the hard grueling workouts paid off."

"Nothing compared to her going to the Olympics," says Linda. "I was proud even before they won the gold medal. Michael Phelps' mom has nothing on me."

Work Hard, Play Hard

You can do anything – if you have the drive and the desire. Whether it's sports or music or school, just keep working hard, and you can never tell what doors are going to open for you.

Emily Hoskins

Emily currently plays wheelchair basketball with the Phoenix Mercury and is studying at Murray State University in Murray, Kentucky, to earn her Master's degree in clinical psychology. In her spare time, she enjoys playing video games and going to hear live music, especially her favorite band, Bouncing Souls.

Emily loves being around kids and spends every summer as a coach and counselor at a wheelchair basketball camp at the University of Illinois. A positive role model, she encourages kids "just to work hard."

"You can do anything – if you have the drive and the desire," she says. "I sucked at basketball when I first started playing. But I really wanted to be good so I worked hard. After I got to the point where I was on the U.S. team, I really wanted this gold medal – more than anything in my entire life. I worked my butt off and it paid off."

"Whether it's sports or music or school, just keep working hard," she says, "and you can never tell what doors are going to open for you."

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master's-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

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