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Youth Education Award Recipient Q&A with Emily Keenan

  January 27, 2023

With the new year just starting, we would like to take this opportunity to feature Emily Keenan, one of our Youth Education Award recipients and give an update to her story. With this being the 10th year of our Youth Education Award program, we wanted to take this special moment to showcase our winners and share their journeys.

The aim of the program is to help young brain tumour survivors achieve their dreams through post-secondary education. We had the opportunity to interview Emily, one of our Youth Education Awards recipients, to learn more about her journey and share how this award has impacted her life.

1. How did you feel when you first heard the words “you have a brain tumour?”

It’s safe to say that I experienced a whirlwind of emotions upon receiving my brain tumour diagnosis. To this day, I clearly remember getting called in to the hospital with my parents at 14 years old, to discuss the results of my MRI. The car ride was torturous – I kept thinking about how an unexpected phone call requesting a same day appointment to discuss my results couldn’t be a good sign. When I first heard the words “brain tumour” my stomach dropped and I immediately went numb. Although what followed was even worse… “and we don’t know what kind it is or what we’re dealing with”. The rest of the appointment and the car ride home were both a bit of a blur. I was overwhelmed with all kinds of emotions – denial, fear, and frustration, but I was also determined and optimistic – I was ready to take on whatever came my way. I knew that it wasn’t going to be easy, but I had a solid support system by my side every step of the way.

Shortly after my diagnosis, I was referred to the Montreal Neurological Institute since my case was too complex for the hospital in my home city. That is where I met Dr. Del Maestro, who kindly gave me a copy of the patient handbook and a caregiver handbook for my family. Having those resources immediately provided me with some relief, I finally had somewhere to turn to for information and didn’t feel as alone in my journey. This is also when Emily’s Brainstormers was created – a team made up of my closest family and friends, my unwavering support system. We’ve been participating in the Brain Tumour Foundation Walk, formerly known as the Spring Sprint since, 2011. Later that year, I was referred to the Toronto Sick Kids Hospital, where I underwent my first brain surgery.

2. How did you feel about going to post secondary education?

I was honestly pretty anxious about starting University. It probably didn’t help that I had my second brain surgery two weeks before school started, so I was trying to recover while also trying to prepare for a new chapter in my life. My thought process for starting school right away meant that I wasn’t letting my brain tumour define me or hold me back, but in hindsight I should have probably postponed starting until my second semester. I could have done without the added pressure and stress, but I persevered and did it.

After getting through my first year, I felt significantly better. My recovery went well, I was having minimal seizures, and had developed a solid routine. I was intentional when creating my timetables, making sure that I always had two full days a week at home to rest as much as possible. If I’m not careful about maximizing my sleep and minimizing my stress, I have seizures, so maintaining a schedule while balancing an active healthy lifestyle is important.

3. How did receiving this award help you get to where you are today?

Receiving this award had a significant positive impact on my day-to-day life as a university student, which has had a direct impact on my current achievements. As a student, not only did I stress about balancing my workload, my part-time jobs, maintaining a social life and my symptoms, I also stressed about finances, like being able to afford my textbooks and tuition. Thanks to this award, I was able to be selective about how frequently I worked, allowing myself to dedicate as much time as I needed to my studies and give my body time to rest. By working when I could and going to school full time, I was able to finish my degree debt free and begin saving for my first home.

Whether it be providing financial assistance in regard to post-secondary education, offering ample resources and support, the Brain Tumour Foundation of Canada is positively impacting the lives of those affected by a brain tumour diagnosis.

4. Tell us what progress you have had since receiving this award? (Finished school, got a job, got married etc.)

Since receiving this award, I finished school and obtained my Bachelor of Arts Degree in Social Sciences with a Specialization in Psychology, from the University of Ottawa.

I am also fortunate to be a Terry Fox Humanitarian Award recipient. The Terry Fox Humanitarian Award Program encourages youth to emulate Terry’s courage and determination through volunteer work and humanitarian services.

Volunteering has always played a big role in my life. Helping others and giving back was one of my main coping mechanisms. I have been volunteering with the Cumberland Township Agricultural Society for as long as I can remember. In 2015, I was the Navan Fair Ambassador – a position that allowed me to promote and encourage agriculture in our community. That same year I joined the Navan Fair board of directors as the concession’s director, and this past spring I accepted a position on the board of executive directors as the 2nd vice president.

Another milestone that I have achieved is getting my driver’s license. I hadn’t previously been able to get it because of the frequency and uncertainty associated with my seizures. Thankfully my seizures have since stabilized for the most part, which has allowed my neurologist and neurosurgeon to give me the go ahead to start driving.

I was lucky enough to purchase my first home at the beginning of 2020, and I am currently working full time for the government, with the Department of National Defence.

5. This is our 10th year of providing this award. What would you say to others eligible and considering applying?

My suggestion to anyone who is eligible and considering applying for this award, would be to go for it – take that chance and tell your story. We are among the 27 Canadians who are diagnosed with a brain tumour every day, a diagnosis that is completely out of our control. This award provides us with the opportunity to find something positive in a really difficult situation, and enables us to take back some of that lost control. Take advantage of this opportunity and let it empower you, don’t let your diagnosis define you or deter you from your goals.

We would like to give another big congratulations to Emily for receiving the Youth Education Award!

To learn more about our Youth Education Awards, please visit this page.