Emma Neagu Inspires Hope - Photography and Words by Li Chen

Emma Neagu Inspires Hope - Photography and Words by Li Chen

Emma was told by the doctors that they can attempt to salvage her leg, but even if successful, it would result in limited mobility. This would mean she will never be able to dance or do gymnastics again.

At age 12, Emma was already an accomplished gymnast. During a series of medical visits, for what was originally thought to be a sports-related injury, the doctors found cancer in her right knee. Emma was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a type of bone cancer that affects mostly teenagers and young adults.

The cancer had spread, and Emma was presented with two options: She could salvage her leg, which would mean she’d have two cosmetically normal legs, but with limited usage and mobility. The other option was a procedure known as rotationplasty. Rotationplasty is when the doctors amputate above the knee, and reattached the ankle 180 degree rotated at the point of amputation. In this case, her ankle would serve as the joint to control a prosthetic leg. With this option, she would have the best chance to regain mobility and a chance to do gymnastics again. For Emma, the decision was simple; she wanted to do gymnastics again.  

Now at age 15, Emma has become an advocate for childhood cancer awareness. Having been active in volunteering with organizations related to pediatric cancer, I regularly receive news and updates about events near me. When I read that Emma, who lives in Canada, was planning to attend CureFest in DC, I knew I had to team up with her. As a photographer, I photograph hundreds of gymnasts every year. I was deeply inspired by the bravery Emma has shown in fighting cancer, and her resolution to continue to do gymnastics. I wanted a way to spread that inspiration. More people, like the young gymnasts I work with, need to hear her story. I decided to invite Emma for a photoshoot during her visit to Washington DC, as well as arranged for her to speak to the young gymnasts at the clubs I work with.

On the day of the shoot, over 100 gymnasts filled the floors of G-Force Gymnastics in Ashburn, Virginia. Regularly scheduled practice was taking place simultaneously with the photoshoot, while Emma was on the beam and the uneven bars. Several kids were obviously distracted by the firing of camera flash, but more so by the presence of a gymnast with an obvious fake leg.

The practice session and the photo session ended almost at the same time, to allow the other gymnasts to hear Emma’s words. About 120 kids were gathered to form a semicircle around Emma, where she proceeded to tell her story, her battle with cancer, and how she chose amputation over limb salvage surgery. Sports injuries are very common in gymnastics, but for an young athlete, the worst they could imagine was spraining an ankle or breaking a wrist, losing an entire leg was beyond their imagination. The children were told too keep an open mind about what they might see, and, for the most part, they did. Hands small and tiny rose eagerly for their turns to ask questions: “Does it hurt?” “What’s your favorite apparatus?” “How many different (prosthetic) legs do you have?” With each question Emma answered, more hands popped up.

Blue leotard donated by: Xiaoxiao Designs

After we wrapped up the day, I had Emma shuttled to her hotel in DC, where she would prepare for her participation at CureFest for the following day. CureFest is one of the largest childhood cancer events held. The organization’s mission is to make childhood cancer research a national priority, by uniting the community and our elected leaders. Childhood cancer is very different from adulthood cancer, and the medical and research communities have been suffering from lack of funding and general support from our politicians. As a result, children suffering from cancer are left with antiquated treatment options. CureFest is the one place where several cancer communities come together to change that. With Emma as a powerful face for children’s cancer awareness, I am given hope for a better future.

Team Credits:
Photographer: Li Chen
Make-up/Hair: Allie Jones
On-set Dance Coach: Lily Farrar
Model: Emma Neagu

Special thanks to Gymnastic Facility: G-Force Gymnastic Training Center (their Facebook) for letting us use their location.


Li Chen is a fashion and portrait photographer based in Virginia.

His studio currently specializes in portraits of ballerinas, gymnasts, and competitive cheerleaders.

For the last several years, he and his staff have been heavily involved with charitable organizations related to childhood cancer.

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