A Local Life: Emily Dao, 20

A Local Life: Emily Dao Chased Her Dreams Even as Cancer Tried to Block Her Way

Emily Dao, left, 20, a Virginia Tech student from Herndon, with her sister Brittany, 16. Dao had big ambitions.
Emily Dao, left, 20, a Virginia Tech student from Herndon, with her sister Brittany, 16. Dao had big ambitions. "I have to . . . become the next Warren Buffett or something," she told the school newspaper. "I'm too young. I have too much more that I have to do." (Family Photo)
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By T. Rees Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009

Emily Dao, the daughter of Vietnamese immigrants, grew up in Fairfax County and made wild predictions in her diary about her future. She was 10 when she wrote of wanting to discover a new planet. She had entries about becoming the world's first "multi-zillionaire." She dreamed that her future children would go to Harvard. She wanted to find the cure for cancer.

She graduated from Chantilly High School in 2006 and was a junior at Virginia Tech when she began sensing that something was terribly wrong with her health. The honors student with the 3.95 grade point average, who was used to staying up late studying for her heavy load of classes, was now constantly exhausted, dizzy and lightheaded. She complained of regular stomach pains.

Her doctor back home said that she had every sign of colon cancer but that it simply couldn't be true. It didn't make sense, because that type of cancer affected only older patients. The doctor sent her home with orders to adjust her diet and take better care of herself.

After her symptoms persisted for two more months, Ms. Dao sought a second opinion. In late October 2008, Ms. Dao learned that she was suffering from stage IV colon cancer. She was 20. Fewer than 90 women her age develop colon cancer every year.

Faced with the decision to either accept her fate and stay comfortable, or start chemotherapy treatments that promised months of excruciating pain and uncertain results, Ms. Dao chose to fight.

"I have hope that I'm going to make it. I have to go become a billionaire, go become the next Warren Buffett or something," Ms. Dao told Virginia Tech's student newspaper, the Collegiate Times, in December. "I'm only 20 years old -- I'm too young. I have too much more that I have to do."

Ms. Dao began a rigorous chemotherapy regimen that included experimental treatments and powerful dosages that would ultimately devastate her body.

On Nov. 8, surgeons removed a third of her colon and a tumor five inches in diameter that had been trapping poisonous toxins inside her body. During the next eight months of chemotherapy, her feet and hands became so dry that her skin would slough off in layers. Her nails became so brittle that they would chip off her fingertips at the slightest flick. She lost most of her long black hair.

She was prescribed Fentanyl, a pain medication applied as a patch on the skin that is nearly 100 times more potent than morphine. She took Percocet, an oral opiate painkiller, every three to four hours.

The chemotherapy and medications made her nauseated. Every day she vomited what little food she could manage. She wilted from 110 pounds to 68 on her 5-foot-1 frame.

But the treatments didn't work. The cancer had metastasized to her liver, lungs and abdomen.

Ms. Dao remained active during her battle against time and cancer. She took a full load of classes in a specialized online program through Tech's business school. In January, she participated in an internship at Ernst and Young in McLean, where she worked as an auditor with clients such as Marriott International.

Her Delta Zeta sorority sisters founded "Down for Dao," a charitable organization created to help raise money for Ms. Dao's chemotherapy treatments.

In early June, after another surgery to remove a tumor from her abdomen that was three inches in diameter, Ms. Dao's doctors said there was nothing more they could do except make her comfortable.

She died Aug. 12 at her home in Herndon. She was 20.

"Emily told me one day, 'I want to keep fighting, but my body is just giving up on me,' " said her sister, Brittany, 16, a junior at Oakton High School.

Ms. Dao's mother, Thuy, said she has one memory that epitomized her daughter's courage. Ms. Dao was 5 years old, playing with an older and much bigger boy who pushed her. Ms. Dao retaliated by jumping in the air and kicking the boy with both feet in his chest, her mother recalled.

"She wasn't scared of anything," her mother said. "She was fearless. That's Emily."

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