By Steve Sears
Sometimes good things result out of challenging situations.
Looking at Emanuela Stilianessis now at age 11, you’d find it hard to believe that, at 15 months, she was fighting for her life while her mom, dad, and older brother fought tears. But there’s a happy ending. Emanuela in her young life has accomplished something many people dream of: having a book published. She and her mom, Anna, co-authored and self-published Dream On…, a wonderful 35-page offering in paperback where Emanuela hops on Sparkles the unicorn’s back and is whisked to just a few of the spots around the world she longs to visit in her lifetime.
It all started with a well-baby visit to Emanuela’s and her older brother Gerry’s pediatrician, Lisa Meli, D.O. “My husband, Chris, was there,” says Anna Stilianessis, mom to Emanuela, “and my two children – right now I have four children, at the time I had two children – and we went in for a well-baby visit. We hadn’t actually started the visit yet, and my son started tickling her belly, and a lump protruded, and he asked, ‘What’s that?’ My husband and I looked at each other; we’d never seen it before. All the times I changed her diaper, bathed her – I never ever noticed it. It was quite large (10 cm).”
Immediately sent to Hackensack Medical Center for an ultrasound and MRI, the family was greeted by a team of oncologists. “I honestly thought they were in the wrong room,” Anna recalls. “They hadn’t done anything yet, no testing. They introduced themselves and I said, ‘Sorry, but you’re in the wrong room.’ Because when the doctor first sent us to get tests, who thinks cancer? I wasn’t thinking cancer at all.”
“That’s when our lives changed- just like that.”
It was discovered that half of the left lobe of Emanuela’s liver had a rare tumor, which was diagnosed as hepatoblastoma, the most common malignant tumor found in young children. It forced immediate eight-hour surgery, which included removal of Emanuela’s tumor, neighboring lymph node, and her gall bladder. The follow-up biopsy revealed, in Anna’s words, “More bad news, one thing after another, telling us it was cancerous, and we had to go along with chemotherapy.”
It was a roller coaster of emotions. “Cry is an understatement,” says Anna. “We didn’t know how we were going to get through it. We didn’t know how we were going to get through the next hour let alone the next day, because you’re really living hour by hour.”
Emanuela endured chemo and suffered the normal side affects (loss of hair, vomiting, not eating, losing weight), but survived. Also, her liver has rejuvenated to the size of a healthy liver. “How blessed we are,” is the first thought Anna says pops into her mind each day as she awakes. “I look at her and tell her all the time that she is my inspiration to just do so much in life, she really is. She’s full of life, she wants to see the world – that’s where the book comes from, she has places she wants to visit, and she keeps me going.”
“I have a long list of places that I want to visit. It’s a really long list,” Emanuela says with a laugh. “It’s a lot of places, and I kind of wanted to share it.”
“Yes, she has a long list,” agrees Anna, who with her family owns both the Wayne Preakness Diner in Wayne and Lenape Hills Diner in Oakland, and also owns with her husband Ringwood’s Lakeside Diner. “I said, ‘You know what? You’re talking you want to go visit here and there, so why don’t we pick three and put them in the book?’ For example, Paris is one of them, so she started reading a book about Paris and researching about Paris. So, we just sat down and put them together and, at the end of the book, we kind of left it open that we can’t wait for our next adventure, so maybe we’ll turn it into a little series and talk about the other places.”
Highlighted in the book are, yes, a trip to Paris, but also stops in New York City and California. “The unicorn,” says Emanuela, “ is a stuffed animal. I would have a (day) dream where, every time I had a place I wanted to visit, I’d basically go on the unicorn’s back and then go to the place.” The book took both Anna and Emanuela a year to write, each researching each place, taking notes, and put it all together. A few copies of the book are available at Packanack Lake Elementary School Library, where Emanuela currently attends school.
Both Anna and Emanuela are considering a second book but would actually like to visit the next places they write about, and those places include Hawaii and London.
Chris and Anna Stilianessis, who have been married for 19 years, and also are parents to 6-year-old Irene and 4-year-old and Manny, recognize that Gerry and Emanuela have a very special bond. “Out of all four kids, he is the only one she hugs, shows affection to. She is very close to him and he is very overprotective of her.”
Dream On can be purchased at www.amzn.to/2x4N8iu, and a percentage of all proceeds are donated to, primarily, different pediatric cancer charities per month. “People don’t realize that only 4% of cancer research goes to pediatric cancer,” says Anna. “They keep saying pediatric cancer is rare, but there’s so many. That bothers me a lot. When you start the process of the chemo and the devastating news, it’s scary, you don’t know what’s going to happen from day to day, but you meet all these other families and then, by the end of the treatment, you realize how lucky and fortunate you are that your child is healthy. You ask a lot of whys: Why did this happen to me? Why were we fortunate? All these things go through your head.”
According to Emanuela, she had a goal with the book idea. “So that they (children suffering with cancer) could have the courage to fight. And, when she (her mom) says donating the money, they don’t have a lot of medicines for cancer.”
Adds Anna, “There was a lot of people who were great to us so we’re trying to give back. And family is the most important. We couldn’t really go throughout the process without our family.”
Anna Stilianessis recalls her first thought when she realized her baby daughter would be okay. “Relieved and scared at the same time. Relieved because it was over and I never thought we were going to get there, but scared because, though the chemo was keeping the cancer away, I was scared that once we were done, it was going to come back.”
It hasn’t. Thankfully, Emanuela is healthy. She is a cheerleader and is also involved in acrobatic gymnastics, and often gets tested to ensure she is still cancer free. She will soon enter George Washington Junior High School. “Her oncologist said they’ll be at her wedding,” says Anna with a smile. “I’m happy to hear that.”