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Healthy habits: Exercise, treatments help teen with cystic fibrosis

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Emma D'Agostino was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at two weeks old and has endured 17 years of treatments, sinus complications, hospital stays and antibiotics. D'Agostino has also competed nationally as an Irish dancer since she was 13, and she is an all-state flutist in her school band. Above, she shows off her many medals she has won.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Emma D'Agostino was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis at two weeks old and has endured 17 years of treatments, sinus complications, hospital stays and antibiotics. D'Agostino has also competed nationally as an Irish dancer since she was 13, and she is an all-state flutist in her school band. Above, she shows off her many medals she has won.

NORCROSS -- A typical day for Emma D'Agostino includes breathing treatments in the morning and at night and exercise through an Irish dance class or a bike ride.

It's a routine that the 17-year-old said has helped maintain her health.

D'Agostino, who just completed her junior year at Norcross High School, has cystic fibrosis, an inherited chronic disease that affects the lungs and digestive system of about 30,000 children and adults in the United States, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation.

A defective gene and its protein product cause the body to produce unusually thick, sticky mucus that clogs the lungs, which can lead to life-threatening infections. The mucus also obstructs the pancreas and stops natural enzymes from helping the body break down and absorb food.

In the 1950s, few children with cystic fibrosis lived to attend elementary school, according to the Foundation. Today, advances in research and medical treatments have further enhanced and extended life for children and adults with cystic fibrosis.

"There are people with CF living into their 50s and 60s," D'Agostino said. "Noncompliance (with treatment plans) is a huge issue for the CF population. ... I would not be as healthy as I am without all the exercise I've done."

D'Agostino was diagnosed with the disease when she was 2 weeks old. She said she was in and out of the hospital in the first few years of her life. Her symptoms calmed down when she was 4.

That was also the year that she became interested in Irish dance.

"Riverdance was on PBS every night," D'Agostino said. "My brother and I would sit on the couch and watch. I said, 'I want to do that.'"

Her family found her a dance instructor, and she still goes to lessons a couple times a week. D'Agostino also participated in several competitions but stopped dancing competitively this year to focus on playing the flute.

"For the most part, I can do anything and everything," she said. "I don't notice (the CF) until I get sick. I have almost normal lung function, and if I can't breathe, I'm going to fix it right away."

D'Agostino said the disease has become more noticeable as she's aged. Her rigorous treatment schedule has prevented her from taking a first period class at Norcross, and she makes up the missed credits during summer school.

During her upcoming senior year, D'Agostino said she plans to take International Baccalaureate classes, including Calculus BC and French, and play in the band.

She just started the college search and said she's interested in studying biomedical engineering and genetic research at Georgia Tech. She's also planning to apply to University of South Carolina, University of North Carolina and Vanderbilt University.

Through engineering and research classes, D'Agostino said she's interested in exploring ways to fix or treat the genetic defect that causes cystic fibrosis.

"I'd like to work on CF," she said. "I think it would be cool to work on it and make a difference."