Emma’s story isn’t a unique one, in that sadly, in 2020 alone, the number of new cancer cases in the United States was estimated at 1.8 million, with approximately 606,000 of those ending in death, cancer.org.

However, her story is unique, in that, when it happens to a family member, a friend, yourself, the statistics cease to matter. In that moment the reality of it becomes real in a way it never could before. It’s no longer separate, but very personal, very intimate, and very frightening.

Like many families, cancer has impacted ours many times over. Cancer took my husband’s father in 1999, my father in 2010. We lost our niece to breast cancer at the age of 33, in 2013. A few years later, in 2015, we lost my husband’s sister to brain cancer. She was only 56.

Yet, even the pain and devastation of those losses could not prepare us for the blow that four little words would deliver: Your daughter has cancer.

This is Emma’s story.

Emma and her big sister in 2016, a few days before she would begin chemotherapy for stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma.

Five years ago, at the age of 17, after almost a year of tests and continued deteriorating health, Emma was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkins Lymphoma. The diagnosis was both a blessing, we finally knew what was wrong, and a curse, how could this be happening to her?

Fear and faith overwhelmed us. But in the end, it was Emma, herself who would fight this battle in mind, in body, in spirit. We could comfort, support, care for, and pray, but it would be Emma doing the fighting. And with faith and hope, did she ever fight.

She spent her senior year of high school at Shands Children’s Hospital in Gainesville where she underwent intensive chemotherapy to battle this deadly disease. Her warrior spirit and faith were something to behold.

Emma receiving her first chemo treatment. The day before she had cut her long hair and donated the length to Locks for Love. As it always was, her guitar was with her….and that smile.

As parents, my husband and I were humbled by her strength during such devastating circumstances. Instead of complaining or feeling sorry for herself she rose up. Instead of wallowing in self-pity, she turned her love and talent in music and art to gifts she shared with other patients and their families on the children’s wing.

She finished high school virtually, and played her guitar and sang as often as she could. She became known as the “Rockstar” of the pediatric floor.

Emma in June, 2016, before her final chemo treatment. Still smiling. Still grateful.

June 2021 marks five years cancer free for Em. Five years cancer free in the medical community is often referred to as ‘cured’ since the likelihood of reoccurrence is very small. We’ll take that.

We know how lucky we are. We know that Emma’s story doesn’t always end for others the way it did for her. And we are so very grateful for this miracle. We praise God every day for this precious gift he has given our family.

During her illness, Emma wrote a beautiful song called, Breathe. In 2019, we traveled to LA as a family, where she worked with producers and recorded it as her first single at Paramount Recording Studios. It was a family celebration of a lifetime.

Emma in 2019 recording her first single, Breathe, Los Angeles California.

She asked her dad, also a musician, to play on the track. She asked her big sister and I to sing backup vocals. It was a beautiful and inspirational moment when it all came together. One that we will cherish for a lifetime.

This is us in LA in the studio with Emma. We obviously had too much time between sessions!

Emma is almost 23 now. She’s healthy and strong. She continues her journey grateful every day for the opportunities and the life before her. She still sings. Still plays her guitar. Still writes music. She doesn’t define herself by her cancer story. Rather, she acknowledges that her story is one among millions and deeply humbled that unlike so many others, she was given another chance to live, to love, to be.

I’ve learned to be grateful for the hard times, because without them the good times wouldn’t be as good. I’ve learned more about myself and who I am. I’ve learned that even in the toughest times, you can make great memories. And I’ve learned that the way you think can change not only your experience, but also those around you. If you’re positive, it affects others in a positive way. Mostly I’ve learned that worrying is pointless, because you’re not in control. I’ve learned to trust God in all things, no matter the outcome.

Emma Rose Fenwick
Our Emma today.

Thank you for letting me share Emma’s story.

Breathe by Emma Rose is available on all platforms if you’d like to listen. ♥️

JN Fenwick (© 2021)

Nothing could’ve prepared us. Not for this. Though we did prepare. We boarded up our windows. Stocked up on supplies. Safeguarded our valuables. But this time would be so much different than those that had come before. Pretty soon, all we had left were our prayers. And our fervent hope that we’d still be alive when it was over.

We’d done this before, many of us, more than once; prepared for the possibility of a hurricane visiting us during the Season. We were used to Summer ushering in, not just the tourists, but the Atlantic Hurricane Season as well. Hurricane Season begins the first of June and lasts through the end of November every year.

Living in the Panhandle of Florida, we knew that during any given Season we could be at risk, so preparedness was something we took seriously. Many of us had remained through Opal (1995) and Ivan (2004) and felt confident we could safely weather Michael as well.

But there are some things you can’t prepare for. Some things that happen so quickly and change so dramatically that no amount of preparation matters. Hurricane Michael was one of those.

Within hours the potential Category 3 impact had grown into a nightmare of monster proportions. We awoke on Wednesday, October 10, to a very different situation than the one we had gone to bed with the night before. There would be nowhere to hide from Michael. It was too late to try to evacuate so we rushed to get to safety or hunkered down where we were, hoping, praying for a miracle.

“I think that if people are comparing storms, what was really fascinating was that Michael was still intensifying when it was making landfall, which is similar to Hurricane Camille also intensifying as it moved inland,” said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Dan Kottlowski, in an article that appeared in Time Magazine. “Other storms, like Hurricane Opal in 1995, actually went from a category 4 to 3, just like most storms that make landfall on the Gulf Coast tend to weaken.”

Michael makes his way onshore in the Florida Panhandle during the early afternoon hours of October 10, 2018. At almost Category 5 strength, Michael’s 155-mph sustained winds and over 15-ft. storm surge, obliterated the tiny coastal community of Mexico Beach, FL.
I shot this image with my cell phone around 11:15 AM on October 10, from the foyer windows of the Panama City Surgery Center, where my family and I were sheltering with other employees and their loved ones. During the height of the storm, we could hear transponders exploding all around us, metal being ripped from the roof of the structure, trees snapping, and limbs and other debris barreling into the building. Some of the worse moments occurred as the barometric pressure bottomed making our ears and heads pound. There were moments when it felt like the walls were actually breathing and the building was shifting on its foundation. At one point the foyer doors were breached by the intensity of the wind.

On October 10, 2018, Hurricane Michael made landfall at approximately 12:15 p.m. along the Florida Panhandle. A deadly Category 4 storm (just two miles shy of Category 5 strength) with sustained winds of 155-mph, gusts reaching a staggering 185-mph, and a minimum central pressure of 919 millibars, Michael made his presence known as the third strongest hurricane on record to hit the U.S.

In the Eye of the Storm: Stories of Survival and Hope from the Florida Panhandle | Jennifer N. Fenwick

In an October 10, teleconference organized by FEMA, Brad Kieserman, vice-president for disaster operations and logistics for the American Red Cross said, “This storm went from a tropical storm to a projected CAT 3 at landfall in six hours yesterday. It’s not behaving normally. It intensified extremely quickly. It didn’t give anyone time to do much. And the one thing you can’t get back in a disaster is time.”

As the sun was beginning to set on the evening of October 10, residents in the path of Hurricane Michael emerged to a nightmare. “Nothing, and I stress NOTHING, could have prepared us for what we saw,” said Jane Smith, who rode out the storm with her husband and son in their Bay County home. “I think at this point we went into shock. It looked as if a bomb had gone off and the silence was eerie. All we could see everywhere we looked was downed trees, all the trees. Those that did still stand looked like barren twigs. Most every house in view had fallen trees on their roofs, in their yards, on their fences. They were everywhere. We walked around like zombies. We saw the destruction, but just couldn’t comprehend it.”


Jane Smith, like many, ended up losing her home to Michael and is now living in a trailer provided by FEMA as she awaits rebuilding. She took this image a few days after the storm. “Seeing the devastation now,” she remarked, “It’s truly a miracle we survived.”
You can read Smith’s entire story and the poetry she wrote following the storm in the book, In the Eye of the Storm, to which she is a contributing author.

Search and recovery began immediately with teams from around Florida deployed to the Panhandle. In Mexico Beach, where the eye of the storm crossed, rescue teams used dogs to comb through piles of rubble and mangled structures of the once pristine seaside town. Authorities say it could be months, even years, before anything approaching “normal” returns to the region.

Image by Jennifer Fenwick

“This morning, Florida’s Gulf Coast and Panhandle and the Big Bend are waking up to unimaginable destruction,” Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Thursday morning. “So many lives have been changed forever. So many families have lost everything. … This hurricane was an absolute monster.”

Doyle Rice | USA Today

In the first few weeks following the storm, residents in the Florida Panhandle struggled to come to grips with the destruction of their homes and cities. Many who returned, once allowed, are still living in campers, tents or bunking with neighbors, and relying on portable toilets and boxed ready-to-eat meals provided by FEMA, the Red Cross or other volunteers,” reported The Guardian.

Like the felled trees, power poles were snapped by the 155-mph wind, lines were down everywhere, and substations were damaged leaving over 800,000 residents without power across the region. Linemen from all over the country worked 16-hour days trying to restore power. In all, about 6,000 tree service and line workers were deployed to the area within a matter of hours, The Pensacola News Journal reported.

As the days, weeks and months have passed, the initial shock and focus on survival have given way to grief and frustration as we learn to navigate our way through this strange new world. There are reminders of that day everywhere we look. There’s just no escaping the carnage. There are deep scars on our landscape and deeper ones carried within.

Property damage in the impacted region is estimated at over $5 billion dollars. The current housing crisis is compounding problems as residents who lost everything have nowhere to go. One local woman has opened up her property to victims of Michael who now, through no fault of their own, find themselves without shelter. Images like this home in the Cove area of Panama City, by Terry Kelly, are common place throughout the region.

For weeks after Michael, we were cut off from the world outside. Internet and cell phone service, like the power, was completely wiped out. When the power poles fell, they took the internet and cable lines with them. In addition, the major cell phone carrier in the area suffered extensive damage to their towers and network cables, all of which were above ground. It was months before services like cable, internet, cell phones, and wifi were restored.

We sort of got used to being cut off. Unfortunately, once we were able to connect with the outside world, we quickly realized that it had moved on without us.

Image by Tony Miller

The Tampa Bay Times posted an article that brings into stark and upsetting reality how little is being done outside our storm-ravaged area to assist with recovery and rebuilding. The road ahead is a long and rough one for the afflicted region. We cannot do this alone.

“Hurricane Michael was a major disaster, but big donors haven’t treated it as one,” the article states.

According to Emily L. Mahoney in a Times/Herald Tallahassee article, “The Panhandle’s low profile meant the media attention came and went, so the disaster never drew the major corporate donations that other storms did. That’s a harsh reality — just like the conditions in which thousands of Floridians still find themselves living more than four months after the storm struck. Tarps on roofs. Families living in tents. People taking refuge in their cars.”

According to the Times/Herald analysis of contributions to three prominent national charities, donations to Hurricane Michael recovery fall far below donations for recent landmark hurricanes to hit the South such as Florence, Irma, and Harvey.

The level of damage left behind by Hurricane Michael is catastrophic. According to Mahoney, “Those who felt the full force of Michael were in Florida’s Panhandle, where state officials estimate property damage at more than $5 billion. That’s more than Irma. Yet somehow, at least nationally, Hurricane Michael is not even a topic of conversation.”

Destruction to the timber and forestry industries throughout the impacted region is estimated at over $1.3 billion. “This is a catastrophic loss to the forestry industry,” said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture, Adam H. Putnam. Image by David Herring.

“Georgia has long led in the production of several renowned commodities and now we have the dubious distinction of also leading in the devastation and incredible loss of these prominent crops,” Agriculture Commissioner Gary Black said in a statement. “These are generational losses that are unprecedented and it will take unprecedented ideas and actions to help our farm families and rural communities recover.”

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

The impact from Michael is not just limited to the coastal region of the Florida Panhandle. The widespread catastrophic damage spread well inland as Michael remained at hurricane strength into the rural and farming communities of Florida and southwest Georgia, before passing through Virginia and North Carolina, and then finally making his way back out to the Atlantic.

The powerful storm flattened trees, demolished crops and destroyed chicken coops throughout southwest and middle Georgia. Agriculture industry losses could reach nearly $3 billion, according to the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service and Georgia Forestry Commission.

Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal Constitution

In Florida, cotton farmers essentially lost most of the season’s crop, which was ready for harvesting when it was swept away by the 155-mph winds. Aquaculture along the Gulf Coast, including oyster farming, suffered 80 percent to 100 percent losses from Michael (Jim Turner |News Service of Florida).

Downed trees are seen from the air at Tyndall Air Force base in the aftermath of Hurricane Michael near Mexico Beach, Fla. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

While post-storm analysis is still being performed and the argument surrounding upgrading Michael to CAT 5 is ongoing, the facts remain, this storm was a monster bringing widespread, apocalyptic destruction to the Florida Panhandle and further inland, that will take years to heal.

Nearly five months after Hurricane Michael ravaged the Florida Panhandle, economic setbacks and delays have made recovery increasingly difficult for Florida Panhandle residents trying to rebuild their homes, and their lives.


Allie Raffa, | Fox News, February 28, 2019

As we navigate this strange new world, there are days when the frustration and grief become overwhelming. Days when the determination grows stronger. Days when the fatigue and stress settle deeper into our bones.

Through it all, we try to remain hopeful. The world may have moved on, the impacts of Michael may still be revealing themselves, recovery and rebuilding may be ongoing with no definitive end in sight, but there’s one thing we’re all certain of, it will be a long time, and a lot of hard work, before we are ok again.

© Jennifer N. Fenwick

Hurricane Michael at a Glance

LANDFALL: Michael made landfall at 12:15 p.m. local time on October 10, near Mexico Beach, FL
 
STRENGTH: High-end CAT 4 with sustained wind speeds at 250 KM/H or 155-MPH; Minimum central pressure, 919 MB. The Florida Panhandle took the brunt of Michael’s fury, suffering apocalyptic damage as the storm peeled off rooftops, uprooted and snapped trees in half, destroyed homes and businesses, and caused extensive flooding.
 
HISTORICAL: Michael was the strongest storm to ever come ashore in the Florida Panhandle, as well as the first CAT 4 to make landfall in the area. Michael was the strongest storm to hit the U.S. since Hurricane Andrew in 1992 and Hurricane Camille, who in 1969, made landfall along the Mississippi Gulf Coast with 174-MPH peak winds and a storm surge of 24.6 FEET recorded in Pass Christian, MS.
 
STRONGEST WINDS OBSERVED: Tyndall Air Force Base, Florida recorded winds gusts reaching 224 KM/H or 139-MPH.
 
STORM SURGE: Apalachicola, FL recorded storm surge reaching 8.5 FEET.  Near Mexico Beach, where the eye passed, National Weather Service buoy measured waves greater than 30-FEET before it stopped working.
 
OTHER FACTS: The death toll in Florida has risen to 35 in Florida and 45 overall, with at least 10 deaths reported in other states. Property damage following Michael is estimated at more than $5 billion. Damage to Florida’s forestland is currently estimated at $3 billion.

There will never be another Hurricane Michael. The name was retired following the 2018 Hurricane Season due to the storm’s catastrophic intensity.
Arial image of Mexico Beach, Florida following Michael (Associated Press/AP)