Reasons to Dream
Despite a metastatic lung cancer diagnosis, Emily Bennett Taylor was able to look beyond the illness in 2012 to her dream of raising a family. Today, with no evidence of disease, she is the mother of two baby girls.
By Marci A. Landsmann
Photo by Dawn Bowery
It’s hard to imagine taking the long view when facing stage IV non–small cell lung cancer, but 28-year-old Emily Bennett Taylor did just that after her June 2012 diagnosis. She knew that chemotherapy could take away her and her husband’s dream of having children, so she wanted to explore fertility treatment.
“I remember my husband was very reserved about it,” Emily says, because it could mean delaying her treatment for cancer. “We’ve always talked about having kids, but in this case he said, ‘No, I want you, and I don’t want you to do anything else to your body that will put that in jeopardy.’ ”
“A life without children was fine with me as long as I had Emily,” says her husband, Miles, now 32. But it didn’t take long for Emily to bring her husband around to her point of view. “She said she needed it, that mentally it gave her something to fight for,” he says. “When she sat me down and said that, it was a no-brainer for me.”
Before chemotherapy, Emily’s eggs were harvested and fertilized in a process called in vitro fertilization. Within three weeks of her diagnosis, the couple had nine frozen embryos stored for later use. They framed four images of their potential progeny and hung them on their bedroom wall. The Taylors then turned their energy to Emily’s cancer treatment, the first step in getting to their goal.
Too Young for Cancer?
Emily Bennett Taylor with Hope, left, and Maggie. | Photo by Dawn Bowery
In 2012, Emily went to her primary care doctor after she developed a persistent dry cough and shortness of breath. Her doctor thought it might be asthma, but he referred her to a pulmonologist for a chest X-ray to be certain. Films from the test showed some haziness in her right lung, but the pulmonologist was reassuring: Emily’s youth and good health made lung cancer unlikely, she said.
Within days, a follow-up CT scan and biopsy told a different story. Emily had cancer in her right lung that had spread to the surrounding lung lining, which meant the cancer was stage IV. She didn’t know it then, but statistics show that just 1 percent of people diagnosed with stage IV non–small cell lung cancer live five years or longer.
“I don’t think I really, honestly conceptualized what [my diagnosis] meant,” Emily says. “For me, it was just, ‘OK, it’s worse than it could be.’ ” She had a second biopsy, and the tumor was sent for genetic sequencing. The tissue tested negative for genetic alterations that could have made her a candidate for targeted therapies. These treatments have extended the lives of some metastatic lung cancer patients whose tumors have these alterations. Chemotherapy seemed to be her only option.
In July 2012, Emily underwent treatment with carboplatin, Alimta (pemetrexed) and the monoclonal antibody Avastin (bevacizumab) every three weeks over the course of six months at City of Hope in Duarte, California, about 45 miles from her home in Los Angeles. She then started on a round of maintenance therapy with Alimta and Avastin and later a round of Alimta alone, though her doctors explained it was only a matter of time before the cancer would start growing again.
“The chemo was only going to last so long and then resistance would develop,” says Karen Reckamp, Emily’s thoracic medical oncologist at City of Hope. “So the only way to effectively give her a chance at long-term survival was to think outside of the box and think about something pretty radical, like surgery.”
Searching for a Surgeon
Surgery on patients with stage IV lung cancer generally
does not succeed in ridding the body of the disease. However, Emily and her family asked friends and advocacy organizations for the names of surgeons with experience who might be willing to do the operation. After four surgeons said no, Raja Flores, chairman of the thoracic surgery department at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City, said he’d consider it.
“You can get many surgeons who wouldn’t agree with doing this procedure,” says Flores, who believed Emily’s age and the fact that the cancer hadn’t yet spread beyond the chest cavity made her a candidate for surgery. Flores also thought her drive and positive attitude would help her make it through the grueling recovery. “This is definitely pushing the envelope, and if I did not see that fight in Emily, I would not have done the surgery, because it takes a lot to get through,” Flores says.
Every six weeks, Flores received Emily’s scans from her hospital. When it appeared the tumor was not spreading, he contacted the Taylors. “He called us and said, ‘I think if we’re going to do it, now is when we do surgery,’ ” she recalls. The couple booked a flight to New York City, arriving on Jan. 30, 2013.
In early February, Flores did video-assisted thoracic surgery to confirm that the cancer was in the lung’s lining. After confirmation, he performed an extrapleural pneumonectomy, removing Emily’s diseased right lung, the linings of the chest cavity and lung, a portion of her diaphragm, and lymph nodes. He also removed and rebuilt the membrane surrounding her heart. After surgery, Flores told the couple he was confident he had removed all the cancer he could see. Two days later, the couple posted to their blog
a video of Emily slowly dancing down the hall while steadying herself with her walker.
But her treatment wasn’t over. In an attempt to eliminate any trace of disease, she underwent 28 rounds of high-dose radiation to her chest cavity over a six-week period. The side effects included nausea—Emily was vomiting six or seven times a day—and tiredness. When the couple returned home to California in April, she couldn’t move from one side of the couch to the other without feeling exhausted.