Magilnick with her dog Pookie at home.
Magilnick with her dog Pookie at home. (Scott Varley / Staff Photographer)

Emily Magilnick greets you with an infectious smile, a strong handshake and a nicely shaped hairdo. Pooky, the family poodle, jumps on the sofa to be close to Emily, happy that she's home to stay.

It's hard to imagine that just a few months ago Emily, 16, had lost her hair and was in a difficult battle against a rare form of cancer that was eating away at the bone in her right leg.

"It was terrifying when we got the news about the cancer," said Emily's mother, June, from her home in East Long Beach. "It was a parent's worst nightmare, the most hopeless low point of our lives. It was an unbearable pain."

It was a little more than a year ago when Emily felt some discomfort in her right leg. At first, she thought the pain came from a tennis injury or maybe just from growing taller. Emily was your typical active teenager, a great student in the Poly High School PACE program who played on the tennis team.

But the pain persisted, so her mother and father, David, a senior account executive for a staffing agency, took her to see her doctor. On Dec. 12, 2011, Emily was diagnosed with chondroblastic osteosarcoma, a cancerous bone tumor the size of a golf ball on her right shin.

Since then, Emily has endured more than a year of tough medical treatment, including gut-wrenching chemotherapy and surgery to remove seven inches of her right tibia, the bone between her knee and ankle.


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Her mother said that a few years ago, this type of cancer would have resulted in an amputation. But thanks to medical advances, her leg was saved.

The complex surgery, performed by Dr. Dominic Femino at the City of Hope hospital in Duarte in March, took more than 10 hours.

"The whole thing is horrible and, yet, the whole thing is a huge, priceless, amazing miracle," Emily's mom said.

In addition to Dr. Femino, she gave special thanks to Dr. Leah Pike who found the tumor quickly, Dr. Noah Federman at UCLA's Mattel Children's Hospital and Susan Lowenbraun at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

Emily had her final dose of chemotherapy last summer and, after a roller coaster ride of going in and out of hospitals, went home for good. There is a lot of recuperation to do yet, and Emily still uses a wheelchair to get around the sprawling Poly High campus.

Despite the wrenching treatment she had to endure, Emily has come through the ordeal with flying colors and a great outlook on life.

What kept her going? Family, friends and a determination "that this awful thing was not going to beat me," she said.

Her mom called Emily "a warrior who is not letting anybody or anything, especially cancer, get in her way."

In a blog, Emily's mother, who is acting supervisor of the San Pedro branch of the Los Angeles City Attorney's Office, wrote about different events throughout the treatment that helped lift everyone's spirits.

Last May, the Magilnick family attended a dance show at Wilson High School where many of Emily's friends attend.

"Two dear friends, Hannah Levy and Gabriela Lund, worked for months and choreographed a dance in Emily's honor, which was in the program and called, `Dear Emily,"' her mother said. "It was so thoughtful, and we feel so blessed that Emily has such caring friends."

In February, Emily, still weakened, attended Poly's tennis banquet where she was greeted with shrieks of joy and was given her varsity letter. She then received a trophy as the "Outstanding Team Player," described as someone who rallied the team and helped everyone both on and off the court.

Another important supporter was Ron Rita, Emily's home school teacher who tutored her through Poly's rigorous PACE program and kept her on schedule to graduate with her class next year.

And her little brother, Max, came through in a big way also. From the moment Emily was diagnosed, Max, a student at Rogers Middle School, wanted to help his big sister.

Max decided to shave his head at an event sponsored by the St. Baldrick Foundation on St. Patrick's Day in North Hollywood along with Los Angeles firefighters and police. It was one of the largest single fundraisers in St. Baldrick history. Max shaved his head a second time at an event in Seal Beach.

St. Baldrick's was started in 1999 as a nonprofit to raise money for children's pediatric cancer research by three Irish-American executives from New York who decided to turn their St. Patrick's Day party into a benefit for pediatric oncology research by shaving their heads. The foundation name is a play on the words bald and Patrick.

The foundation has organized nearly 4,200 head-shaving events and shaved over 190,500 heads, raising more than $118 million for childhood cancer research.

And just last week the St. Baldrick foundation named Emily as one of its five 2013 ambassadors nationwide to serve as the faces and voices of the foundation throughout the year.

Emily's mom says the common reaction among many people when they hear the words "childhood cancer" is to shy away and not talk about it. One of the reasons, she said, is that one out of five children with cancer don't survive. Emily's job will be to bring attention to the disease and inspire others at the same time with her own story.

Asked what her advice is to friends and family of people with cancer, Emily said: "Don't leave them alone. Let them know you care through cards, phone calls, texting or personal contact. Watch a movie with them. And don't ask how they feel, ask them how you can help. Just be there for them."

Emily's future looks good. So far tests show NED (no evidence of disease). She will have to take it easy on that right leg. She won't be playing competitive tennis and won't be doing any activities with a high impact on her leg.

The Magilnicks will have another special celebration on St. Valentine's Day next month.

That's Emily's birthday; and she will turn 17.

"Our Valentine is back!" her mother said joyfully.

rich.archbold@presstelegram.com; 562-499-1285. http://twitter.com/richarchbold1