One of the small pleasures Emily Dao misses sharing with her Delta Zeta sorority sisters is painting her nails.
Since she started an aggressive chemotherapeutic regimen battling stage IV cancer, Emily can no longer enjoy the activity that helped take her mind off of a stressful 20-credit workload.
Now Emily sleeps 23 hours a day. She is so weak that flipping her phone open to answer a call or text messaging a friend takes exorbitant energy.
Even with Emily's fatigue, painting her nails is still out of the question. Her nails are so brittle from chemotherapy that they have started to flake off her fingertips.
"I GUESS MOST PATIENTS THAT ARE IN MY SITUATION DON'T DO ANYTHING AT ALL"
Emily is the victim of a cancer so rare in younger females that doctors she visited after concerns over abdominal pain didn't even consider the possibility. The 20-year-old junior accounting and finance major had to pull out of her classes last semester in order to return home to Fairfax to begin treatment for colon cancer. On Nov. 7, Emily was diagnosed and almost immediately underwent surgery to remove a growth five inches in diameter that had been trapping toxins inside her lower intestine. The surgeons successfully removed almost all of her colon and the largest masses but an initial PET scan noticed smaller tumors beginning to pop up in other parts of her body as well. Emily's team of oncologists offered her two suggestions. She could either be prescribed chemotherapeutic drugs that they assured her would devastate her body, or she could live the next 6-12 months peacefully.
Emily chose to keep fighting. She started her treatments in December.
Used as a strategy against cancerous growths, chemotherapy aims to inhibit the growth of fast developing cells, such as cancerous cells, according the National Cancer Institute. However, the drugs are largely indiscriminant. Treatments often dismantle proteins in skin cells, hair cells and nail cells.
During her bi-weekly visits to the doctor's office she receives drugs intravenously and then is sent home with a fanny pack that drips a melange of chemicals into her bloodstream over a two-day span. After these treatments, she sleeps without almost any interruption for five to seven days, depending upon the week.
"Chemo was a completely different scenario," Emily said in an interview a couple of weeks after her first treatments. "I did not think it was going to be that bad at all. It was really a lot worse than going through surgery. I thought that the surgery was bad, but chemo was a lot worse."
When she's awake, she suffers from side effects that include extreme pain and nausea, an intense sensitivity to cold and debilitating weakness. She still uses a 50mg time-release patch of Fentanyl, a high-potency pain reducer, and also takes 10mg Percocets every three to four hours, but soon she'll have to see a pain management specialist because the pain is becoming so intense. The pain medications help, but don't help her throat, which is so raw from the treatments that it's very difficult for her to talk on the phone or swallow water. The skin on her hands and feet is so dry it has started to slough off in layers, like after severe sunburn, and she's also developed dark spots on her face. She shivers even in warm spaces, and bundles up in sweatshirts and has a space heater in her room. She's lost 10 pounds off her thin frame because the nausea caused by her pain medications and chemotherapy makes her feel like vomiting at the thought of eating.
"I can't even hold a pencil or hold up food utensils to eat," Emily wrote in an e-mail. "I can't have anything that's cold, or else it'll feel like icicles forming down my throat and in my stomach."