The Faith of a Child
By Jimmy Tomlin
At age 9, Erin Browning is far too young to understand fully the cancer that once ravaged her body.
Too young to comprehend its potential death grip, particularly when the disease has spread from head to toe, as hers did. Too young to grasp that chemotherapy—one of modern medicine’s most potent weapons—in some cases is still no match for a mass of malignant cells.
Too young to understand why doctors shy away from the word “miracle,” when, in her mind, all evidence points to just that.
All she knows is that when she was diagnosed with cancer—and her parents were given little hope for her survival—she prayed her God would heal her.
And she believed He would.
So when a stunned doctor told her, only four months after the grim diagnosis, that her cancer was in remission—a development he considered “remarkable”—Erin simply said what was on her mind.
She smiled and said, “Am I supposed to be surprised?”
Erin’s journey began innocently, in June 2001.
She was sitting on the couch of her family’s home in Thomasville, playfully swinging her legs back and forth, when her feet accidentally collided with a loud cracking sound. Her left foot swelled so big that she couldn’t wear a shoe on it.
Erin’s mom, Laurie Edwards, iced the foot, but the swelling persisted for weeks. An X-ray revealed a hairline fracture in one of her toes, but the doctor insisted patience would heal it.
By mid-August, when Erin’s foot was still too swollen to wear anything but a sandal, the doctor sent her to an orthopedist for further testing. An MRI revealed a tumor in her foot.
“It was about the size of a lemon,” Erin recalls, illustrating the size with her fingers.
Laurie tried not to worry, convincing herself the mass was probably just a calcium deposit. “But we did start asking people to pray for her,” she says.
A few days after the MRI, a needle biopsy proved Laurie wrong. Her daughter, then just 7, had Ewing’s sarcoma, an aggressive form of bone cancer.
“At the time,” Laurie recalls, “the best-case scenario was amputating her foot to get rid of the tumor—they said they might have to come up above her knee to amputate. So there I was sad because I thought Erin would never dance again.”
The news would get worse, though. The next week—on Sept. 11, 2001, the infamous day when terrorism turned this nation on its ear—Erin’s family’s world also turned upside down. A full-body bone scan revealed Erin’s cancer had spread—to her left leg, her right shoulder and hip, her lungs and her skull—and the prognosis was dreadful.
“They said, ‘We don’t hold out much hope of chemotherapy helping her,’ ” Laurie remembers. “ ‘We’ll try chemo, but after about three months, we may have to switch and treat her for quality of life instead of quantity of life.’
“That’s when we really started asking people to pray.”
Laurie and her husband, Joey, told Erin she had cancer, but kept the prognosis from her.
“We tried to be as honest with her as we could, without telling her she would probably die,” Laurie says.
Erin began to realize how sick she was when she had to swap her dance lessons and basketball games for chemotherapy sessions, but she says it never occurred to her she might die. She found comfort in her faith—and in an angelic visit she says she received about a month after her diagnosis.
“I dreamed there was this really bright light,” Erin says, her eyes widening as she recounts the story. “It was kind of a weird light, but I knew it was an angel, and it came up to me and said, ‘You’re going to be OK.’ That just stayed in my mind the whole time I was sick, and I kept thinking, ‘I’m going to be OK.’
In the meantime, Laurie set up a web site, Erin’s Journey,” chronicling her battle against cancer and encouraging people to pray for Erin.
“I wanted so badly for everyone to pray for my daughter,” Laurie says, “because I wanted her to live. I wanted God to hear our screams.”
As word of Erin’s battle spread, her e-mail in-box began to fill up with letters of encouragement and prayer support. Initially, the letters came from Thomasville, High Point, Greensboro. Then they began arriving from farther away—Texas, Russia, Peru.
“Before I knew it, it had just kind of branched out all over the place,” Laurie says.
Erin’s chemotherapy regimen required her to go to Brenner Children’s Hospital in Winston Salem every three weeks for a year—if she lived that long—alternating between one-day and fi ve-day treatments.
The chemo took a brutal toll on Erin’s body. During her fi rst treatment, she had a bad allergic reaction and nearly stopped breathing. She lost her hair. She routinely became nauseated, to the point that she couldn’t stand even the smell of food—not even her favorite, her mom’s homemade spaghetti.
“In the beginning, sometimes she would go three days and not eat anything,”
Eventually, Erin was taking five medicines—all at once—to help control the nausea.
By November, though—after only two months of chemo—there was encouraging news: The cancer appeared to be retreating, and the lemon-sized tumor in her foot was gone.
“The doctor told us that for chemo alone to dissolve a hard-mass tumor like that was unprecedented,” Laurie says. “He couldn’t explain it.”
Erin smiled. She knew who was healing her.
Two months later—on Jan. 18, 2002— following an MRI, and bone and chest scans, Erin’s doctor walked into her hospital room looking puzzled.
“Erin has shown remarkable improvement,” he said matter-of-factly. “Her cancer is in remission.”
Tears of joy streamed down Laurie’s face.
“I was elated, because I knew a miracle had happened,” she says, “and I knew that if God chose to give Erin this miracle, that He had some special plans in store for her and that she would probably be around for a very long time.”
Erin took the good news much more calmly, delivering her now-famous line, “Am I supposed to be surprised?”
Today, Erin smiles at her deadpan reaction.
“I knew God was going to heal me,” she says. “The medicine helped, but He did, like, 99.99 percent of it.”
How could she have been so confident?
Erin jumps up and turns around, revealing a Bible verse printed on the back of her T-shirt. She recites it quickly: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Do not be wise in your own eyes; Fear the Lord and depart from evil. It will be health to your flesh and strength to your bones.—Proverbs 3:5-8”
She came across the verse one day with her grandmother, who was homeschooling Erin during her illness.
“Health to your flesh and strength to your bones?” Erin said. “It really says that?”
She memorized the verse, adopted it as her favorite and built her faith upon it.
“She was a ray of hope for all of us,” Laurie says. “She never lost her hope.”
About 2-1/2 months ago, the cancer returned.
Despite a full year of chemo—followed by nine weeks of almost daily radiation treatments—a tumor showed up on Erin’s left lung in August.
Doctors removed the tumor on Sept. 8—“He felt certain he got all of it,” Laurie says—but he cautioned that in cases of Ewing’s sarcoma, when the cancer returns, it often returns in multiple locations.
No other traces of cancer were visible in August, but the family should know more when Erin returns to the doctor on Dec. 8.
Is Erin scared?
“Trusting,” she says.
For now, Erin’s back in school with her fellow fourth-graders at High Point Christian Academy. She enjoys playing with her sisters, 13-year-old Mary Beth Browning and 4-year old Caroline Edwards.
She’s dancing again, too. During a recital, she danced to Celine Dion’s song “Prayer,” at the end raising her hands to heaven in thanks for her healing.
Erin speaks optimistically about her dream of someday becoming a missionary nurse. In the meantime, she’s sharing her story with as many area civic clubs and churches as she can.
Dec. 8 looms in the back of her mind, though. When told of the tumor on her lung in August, she cried, “I don’t want to do chemo again!”
She has since told her parents that if the cancer returns, she wants to decline chemotherapy because it made her so sick—a decision her parents intend to honor if necessary.
“She doesn’t ever want to do chemo again,” Laurie says softly. “She would choose heaven over chemo—that’s how she puts it.”
Not death over chemo—heaven over chemo.
Such is the incredible faith of this child.
Given her history, are we supposed to be surprised?