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Philipsburg’s Emily Whitehead featured in Ken Burns documentary

Emily Whitehead, front, stands with filmmaker Ken Burns, left, and her parents, Tom and Kari Whitehead.
Emily Whitehead, front, stands with filmmaker Ken Burns, left, and her parents, Tom and Kari Whitehead. Photo provided

Emily Whitehead isn’t shy when it comes to sharing her happy ending.

It’s been almost three years since a 6-year-old girl from Philipsburg successfully battled acute lymphocytic leukemia using an experimental treatment involving HIV.

Now well into her recovery, Whitehead’s victory continues to act as a beacon for others suffering from cancer, first as the basis for the Emily Whitehead Foundation and this week as the hopeful finish to a six-hour documentary series from filmmaker and producer Ken Burns.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning book by Siddhartha Mukherjee, “Cancer: The Emperor of All Maladies” will air in two-hour installments beginning at 9 p.m. Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday on WPSU.

Shepherded by Burns and directed by Barak Goodman, the three-episode saga tours the history of cancer and focuses on the twists, turns and dead ends the search for a cure has taken. Emily will appear in the series’ third chapter, “Finding the Achilles Heel,” on Wednesday.

“We’re really excited to be a part of it,” Tom Whitehead said.

Tom Whitehead doubles as both Emily’s father and the president of the Emily Whitehead Foundation, a nonprofit devoted to developing better treatment options and eventually a cure for pediatric cancer.

The family met Mukherjee, a cancer physician and researcher, at a Pennsylvania Bio conference a year and a half ago. Murherjee had been following Emily’s story and introduced the Whiteheads to the filmmakers charged with adapting his book.

Kari Whitehead, Emily’s mother, said the family continues to get involved with projects like “The Emperor of All Maladies” to help young patients still struggling with cancer.

“We want to raise more awareness and research funds for pediatric cancer and treatments like the T-cell therapy because too many children are dying of cancer,” Kari Whitehead said.

The documentary crew spent three days with the Whiteheads in 2014, in their home in Philipsburg and at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Accommodating the Whiteheads’ rule that anybody who talks to Emily about her treatment has to do something fun for her, the filmmakers also accompanied the survivor to that year’s Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. But the footage didn’t make the final cut.

Emily Whitehead and her family attended the premiere of “Maladies” at New York’s Lincoln Center last week, and if all goes well, it may not be their last red carpet event. Her father said the foundation is exploring the possibility of producing its own documentary focusing on Emily’s story.

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