A Michigan couple is praying that two of their children — who both were diagnosed with cancer — stay in remission and live “long and happy lives.”
Emily and Ben Neumann’s first child, Tristan, was born in 2007. Younger brother Rowan was born in 2010.
“He was this happy smiley baby,” Emily, of Clio, Michigan, tells PEOPLE of Rowan. “But before his second birthday [in March 2012], we noticed some distinct bruising on his body.”
A few days after taking him to the doctor, the parents received a call saying he had an elevated white blood cell count and that they needed to go to Hurley’s Children Hospital in Flint for more testing.
“When I looked up what that could be I saw leukemia, but I thought that was wild and crazy,” she says. “But further tests confirmed that’s what it was.”
As devastated as they were, the parents had to quickly switch gears and comfort friends and family who were also left heartbroken by the news.
After telling so many family members and friends that “everything was going to be fine,” they began to instill that thought into their own minds.
After treatment, Rowan was in remission for almost two years. The family purchased a new home that needed a complete renovation and as they began to make plans for that, a routine check up in April 2016 showed that Rowan’s cancer had returned.
“We launched into the same mode again,” says Emily, 34, who was pregnant at the time with their third child, Winnie. “With support from our family and with our faith, we pushed forward and reminded ourselves that we would get through this.”
After months of chemotherapy and radiation to his brain, Rowan went into remission for the second time. It was around this time that Emily gave birth to Winnie in November 2016.
Emily and Ben, 35, immediately noticed that “something wasn’t right” with Winnie. They were constantly at the doctor’s office trying to deal with her gastrointestinal issues and after further testing, they discovered that at just 3 months old, her liver was the size of a full-grown male’s liver.
They went from specialist to specialist, but it was only when they sat down with their oncologist — who had also treated Rowan — that they discovered that Winnie also had cancer. Diagnosed with neuroblastoma in February 2017, more testing showed that the disease had spread to her liver and throughout her skeleton. Neuroblastoma is a type of cancer that develops from immature or developing nerve cells found in several areas of the body, according to the Mayo Clinic.
“It wasn’t possible for us to understand that two of our kids had cancer,” says Emily. “We couldn’t absorb what the doctor was telling us.”
“I remember wanting to throw the phone and scream,” she adds. “Each diagnosis was harder to accept. This time it wasn’t as easy to look at our children and say that this was all going to be fine.”
Emily says that it’s her strong relationship with Ben that got them both through every tough moment. When she was angry, he picked her back up. And when he didn’t want to get out of bed, she helped him pull through.
After surgery and eight rounds of chemotherapy, doctors were able to remove Winnie’s tumor in June 2017.
Just one month later, Rowan — who had been complaining of headaches — learned that his leukemia had returned for the third time.
“Ben and I mourned that one hard,” she says. “We knew then that the only chance for him to survive was a bone marrow transplant.”
Last November, they found a donor and the transplant was successful. And today, both Rowan, now 7, and Winnie, now 16 months, are in remission, but they are still “not out of the woods yet,” says the devoted mom.
“We’ve been through this a lot,” says Emily, who did genetic testing on their oldest child who is healthy. “But we are still so hopeful.”
Winnie is starting to walk and talk. “She is so wonderful,” Emily says, “and is really coming into her own.”
After all of their ups and downs, their community in Clio came forward in February to renovate their home after their plans were indefinitely put on hold.
“It was such a gift,” says Emily, who still feels like she’s living in a dream when she walks around their new home. “Every single room was completely remodeled. I was so shocked.”
Over 25 contractors and over 5,000 hours were put into the three-week project. Because Rowan’s immune system is so weak after his transplant, a modern and clean home was essential for his health.
“I feel a massive mix of guilt, joy and relief,” she says. “One thing that we’ve learned in and out of the hospital is that everyone has a story. Everyone has their burdens and some families out there have lifelong struggle. But we’re lucky. We’re going to continue to get through this together.”