Emily Dao sits cross-legged on the floor of the Delta Zeta house constructing a gingerbread house with a group of her sorority sisters. While she artfully paints a pink heart on the cookie roof and dots it with Wildberry Skittles, the girls gossip about guys, exams and the upcoming winter break.
Half the candies never make it to the house, though, and Emily takes spoonfuls of Betty Crocker rainbow icing in between giggles.
"My whole stomach is M&Ms and Skittles right now," she says, glancing up at a TV playing "The Holiday."
Armed with her solar-bright smile and confetti-sweet laugh, Emily, 20, enjoys such precious moments with her closest friends, but she's afraid too few nights like this remain.
Barely a month ago, doctors told the Fairfax native the stomach pains she'd been experiencing for almost 28 weeks had been caused by the uncontrollable growth of a tumor five inches in diameter that was blocking her colon. She has been diagnosed with stage IV colon cancer that has metastasized to her liver and lungs.
Emily shrieks as she notices the gingerbread house beginning to topple. She and her friends struggle to keep the building from sliding under the pressure of the thick layer of icing and candy on the roof. They prop up one side using a Milk Duds box as a support.
"I think it's working," Emily says.
After a few minutes waiting for the icing to set, the building appears to stand stable under its own sugary weight. Emily subtly grimaces, scratching underneath her gray sweater at her lower left abdomen, close to where a patch releases Fentanyl, a pain-reducing drug about 80 times more potent than morphine.
"How many DZs does it take to make a gingerbread house?" Emily asks, as she begins to count the girls in the room. "It took seven DZs two hours."
The gingerbread house is complete, and all the girls laugh at Emily's joke. It's her last night at Tech before she heads home for a job interview and a PET-scan in the morning. All the girls in the Delta Zeta sorority are aware their friend is gravely ill. But the topic of conversation that night never strays toward cancer. They all know what Emily's doctors have told her. She is too far along. There is little they can do to stop it.
Close to midnight some of the girls talk about getting ready for bed, but they stay in the room regardless, reluctant to leave Emily's buoyant presence.
In recent weeks Emily has had to face a mortal decision. Her doctors have explained if she foregoes chemotherapy she would have two to three months to live based on the late stage of her cancer. With chemo, she may expect anywhere between six and 12 months.
Would she do as her doctors suggested, taking some time to herself in order to travel the world? Or should she undergo agonizing chemotherapy for the next six months and be surrounded by her friends and family?
"I love you guys," Emily says to the girls around her.