The inspiring story of a lung cancer survivor whose former track coach became her surrogate
The gun went off, and Emily Bennett Taylor started running. The 9-year-old sprinted ahead, determined to beat the other Girl Scouts participating in a two-mile "fun run." Over the first couple hundred meters, Emily passed all the other participants -- except for one. When Emily would take a walking break, the other girl would pass her. And vice versa.
With the finish line in sight, Emily sprinted the last 200 meters, her long legs and arms pumping as she crossed the line first and collapsed into her parents' arms. She accepted her blue ribbon, walked over to the bushes and threw up her entire breakfast.
"I'd given it everything I had, with the thought of losing spurring me on," Emily says. "My dad still says, 'Before that, I knew you were feisty, but that was day I knew how absolutely competitive you were.'"
That competitive spirit has stayed with her. As a standout sprinter on her high school track team, she excelled during her freshman season. Then, just before her sophomore year, her school hired two new coaches, Aaron and Angela Stark, the latter of whom coached the women. A former collegiate heptathlete, 22-year-old Angela straddled the line between head coach and good friend with her athletes, most of who were only a few years younger.
Stark formed a particularly close bond with Emily. And after watching her run sprints in practice, the coach had an idea.
"She wanted me to run hurdles, and I thought she was crazy," Emily says. "You always see the kids eat it on the hurdles. I thought, 'Don't put anything in my path.'"
Still, she agreed to try. And like so many other things in her life, Emily took to it quickly. By the end of her junior season, she'd won two Idaho state championships.
"Her work ethic was amazing," Stark, now 38, says. "She always did exactly what I said, even if my drills seemed crazy."
Angela coached Emily for two years before Aaron's job moved them to Seattle. Christmas cards and emails kept the two updated on each other's lives over the next decade. Emily became an All-SCIAC honors volleyball player at Claremont-Mudd Scripps University, where she met her husband, Miles, a basketball player. They married in June of 2010 and settled into life in Los Angeles. Aaron and Angela, a health and P.E. teacher, had a baby boy in 2006 and another in 2009.
In June of 2012, a different kind of hurdle brought Emily and Angela together again -- in the most unexpected way.
Emily couldn't shake her cough. The fit, active, then-28-year-old hiked through the Santa Monica Mountains, struggling to keep up with her friends. She'd wheeze, cough and cough again. She visited a doctor, who diagnosed her with asthma.
Around the same time, several of Emily's friends attended an event for Jill's Legacy, named for U.C. Berkeley student-athlete Jill Costello, who, at 22, lost a one-year battle with lung cancer. A few weeks later, Emily visited a pulmonologist. While in the waiting room, thinking about Jill's Legacy, she Googled lung cancer. She'd never smoked a cigarette. But except for coughing up blood, she realized she had several of the symptoms.
During her appointment, Emily asked for a chest X-ray. "I was afraid enough of what I'd read to use that as motivation," she says. "But even then, I wasn't cognizant of what was going on."
Emily's doctor called her the next day, asking her to return for a CT scan. The day after her scan, her doctor called again, requesting she come into his office that afternoon. Miles had a work meeting, so Emily went alone. That was when her doctor gave her the news: She had cancer.
"I was devastated in a way, but it never crossed my mind that I wouldn't beat it," Emily says. "At that point it was like, 'What will this journey be like?' I'd never known anyone close to me who'd had cancer."
On July 2, 2012, Emily had a biopsy to determine what type of cancer she had. The diagnosis: Stage IV adenocarcinoma, a rare and dangerous lung cancer that affects non-smokers. The statistical survival rate for her specific cancer was less than 15 percent.
"When I met Emily, she had a type of Stage IV lung cancer that's generally considered incurable," says Dr. Karen Reckamp, Emily's oncologist at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center. "It was an incredibly challenging conversation [to tell her] -- someone so young, in the beginning of her life and marriage. As a mother myself, you sit there thinking, this is kind of an impossible situation."
Miles had read the statistics and knew Emily's chances of survival were very low. But she never researched and didn't want to know the numbers, focusing instead on doing whatever it took to survive.
Emily began chemotherapy in late July of 2012. Before she started chemo, she underwent fertility treatments to remove as many embryos as she could (nine embryos were successfully removed). She and Miles knew they wanted children, and they realized that Emily's cancer might prevent her ability to get pregnant.
"Throughout the treatment, the embryos were absolutely a beacon of hope for me," she says.
By mid-January, Emily had endured eight rounds of chemotherapy. CT scans revealed that the tumors had shrunk and her cancer was stable. Miles spent hours researching the most promising forms of treatment. They both agreed that surgery, while risky, was her best option. Several surgeons turned her down. Then she met Dr. Raja Flores, chief of thoracic surgery at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York.
"Dr. Flores really looked at my like I was a person," Emily says. "One of the things he said was, 'You're young and you're healthy, you deserve to be traveling the world with your husband and having babies, and I want to make that happen.'" She pauses, crying at the memory before continuing. "He said that he was willing to do surgery once I became stable and that he might have to take out my entire lung. That was scary, but I thought, if telling me to do that and extensive radiation afterward will give me the best chance at a life, then I'm doing that. No question."
On Feb. 8, 2013, Emily underwent an extra-pleural pneumonectomy, removing her entire right lung, pleura, seven nodes, half of her diaphragm, and the pericardial sac surrounding her heart. Immediately afterward, Miles asked Flores if Emily had a NED -- No Evidence of Disease -- diagnosis. Flores said yes. But her battle was hardly over.
She and Miles lived in area hotels for three months as she began 28 rounds of high-dose radiation to her right lung cavity. She vomited seven or eight times a day. She wasn't hungry and barely moved off of the couch, except for her daily treatments.
By mid-April, she and Miles returned home to California. That was when radiation fatigue set in. If she moved positions on the couch, she was out of breath for five or 10 minutes. She slept 12-14 hours a day.
"When they told me fatigue, I thought 'sure no problem,' but it was absolutely debilitating," Emily says.
In September, she and Miles bought a house. She began walks around the neighborhood, starting with half a block. Taylor used the app RunKeeper to track her pace and distance. "It became a challenge to me, like, 'how much further can I go and keep this pace?'" she says. Within six months, she could walk two miles.
"I won't say other patients aren't as strong, but all the patients I know who've been athletes, they have that competitive mental boost," Emily says. "Angela set me up to be someone who could take on a challenge like cancer, to think, 'I can beat this.'"
As of this past February, Emily is three years cancer-free. There's a small chance the cancer can return, but "to have been in the clear for this long, we are really grateful," Emily says.
When she was diagnosed, Emily's friends started a blog to document her journey. Angela, who'd had a third son in 2013 and lived with her family in Lexington, Kentucky, learned of Emily's diagnosis through the blog.
"Knowing her determination, I knew she'd kick this," Angela says. "Still, I thought, 'I wish there is something I could do.'"
And then, there was. In April 2015, Emily posted on the blog, asking friends for ideas on potential surrogates. Angela read the post and talked to Aaron, debating the idea of Angela -- whose own sons were 10, 7 and 3 -- being their surrogate.
"We said, maybe this is our shot at helping them," Angela says. "I had three great, easy pregnancies and we felt like we wanted to be able to give this to them."
Unbeknownst to Angela, Emily had talked with a good friend and former teammate about how Angela would be an ideal surrogate. Angela emailed Emily a week later. The subject line read, "Let's do this!"
The two met in Los Angeles and signed the paperwork. Angela took hormones throughout the summer to prepare her body before the first embryo implantation in late July. But neither of the two initial embryos led to a pregnancy.
"I thought my body would rock this, so that was hard to tell them," Angela says. "But I was like, 'let's try again,' so we turned around and did it again."
On Aug. 21, Angela was implanted once more. A week later, she found out she was pregnant. Two weeks later, she learned it was twins.
An avid exerciser, Angela ran until 40 weeks while pregnant with her own children. But with twins, she's had to slow down. She stopped running at 19 weeks. Instead, she wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and walks on the treadmill, works out on an elliptical machine or lifts weights. She took a break from coaching this year during her pregnancy, but still teaches health and P.E. at an elementary/middle school in Lexington.
Angela and Emily text or talk daily; every Wednesday, Angela texts a photo of her growing bump. Her 37-week due date is April 18, which is when the twins will be induced, if they haven't already arrived. Emily will fly to Lexington on March 31, with Miles following soon after, and they'll stay until the twins -- two girls -- are born.
While Emily and Miles plan to return to Los Angeles a month or so after the girls are born, Auntie Angela will continue to have a special place in their lives. "Our families will always be very close, which is awesome," Angela says. "Through this process, I love them more and more every day."
That feeling is mutual.
"I'm so grateful," Emily says. "Not only that Angela was there 14 years ago, but that's she applied that same coach and team mentality to help us achieve this dream."
Lung cancer kills more people each year than breast, colon, liver, melanoma and kidney cancers combined. But funding for research is scant, often because people associate lung cancer with older, chronic smokers rather than young, athletic non-smokers. Emily is now a part-time spokesperson and advocate for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation. Through the foundation, she's also a spokeswoman for a study she is a part of, the Genomics of Young Lung Cancer, which was launched to identify new genome-defined subtypes of lung cancer and accelerate delivery of more effective targeted therapies. The study continues to seek young lung cancer patients as participants.