Emily Bennett Taylor was getting ready to celebrate her second wedding anniversary with her college sweetheart when she went to the doctor for a persistent cough she thought was allergies. Days later, the 28-year-old former college athlete who had never smoked a cigarette in her life was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer.
“From the second I was diagnosed, all I wanted was to be a mom,” Emily tells PEOPLE.” I didn’t get the enormity of that and how much I wanted it until this.”
“As soon as all those inevitable life events look like they could get taken away from you – having children, getting older, even being at their weddings – they’re all you want,” she adds.
With two weeks between diagnosis and the start of chemotherapy, Emily set her heart on preserving her fertility before beginning treatments that could prevent her from ever having children.
“I was actually the one that was more nervous about it,” Emily’s husband, Miles Taylor recalls. “I wanted her to be strong going into the chemo, but she said whatever she would lose physically she’d get back emotionally by just keeping that goal of having kids.”
Within weeks, the couple had successfully created nine fertilized embryos. Emily printed photographs of all nine and taped them to the wall of the her and Miles’s apartment.
“For me, they were a symbol of hope,” she says. “It added so much mental strength to know that I had a future – that the future I had always imagined could still actually happen.”
Now, 31, Emily credits this hope with getting her through nine months of aggressive treatment, including eight rounds of chemotherapy and the removal of her right lung.
Two years after beating cancer, Emily’s doctor gave her and Miles the green light to start a family. As surges in hormones related to pregnancy have been linked to recurrence of lung cancer, she was urged not to carry the baby herself.
So, Emily took to the place where thousands of supporters had followed her lung cancer journey – her blog – and asked for an “immeasurable gift,” a surrogate.
“I was really hesitant to put it up on the website,” she admits. “It just felt like something that you really shouldn t or couldn t ask people, but I wanted to trust the person who would do it, and what better place to find that person than this wonderfully supportive community?”
Three women responded within one hour of posting – a total that ballooned to 13 within the first week. One response stood out: Angela Stark, Emily’s high school track coach.
“When I read her email, I just remember getting all choked up,” Emily tells PEOPLE. “I looked at Miles and I said, ‘Oh my God, I cant believe it. She feels so right to me.’ ”
A Twenty Percent Chance
In June 2012, Emily called Miles at work after researching potential causes of a persistent cough.
“She called me up and said, ‘I think I have lung cancer,’ ” Miles, now 31, recalls. “I asked, ‘Why?’ and she said, ‘WebMD’ and I just laughed and said, ‘God, get off that website. There’s no chance.’ ”
She scheduled a doctor’s visit that turned into a chest ex-ray that led to a CT scan. A large mass was found in her right lung and a biopsy confirmed her worst fear – she had Stage IV lung cancer.
When a patient is diagnosed with lung cancer at this stage, many medical professionals see the case as terminal and offer only palliative care to improve quality of life.
“Stage IV patients like Emily are basically given palliative chemotherapy and that’s it,” Dr. Raja Flores, one of Emily’s doctors, explains. “Because usually at that stage, doctors feel there’s no way the patient can be cured.”
Still, Emily pushed to begin chemotherapy in the hopes that it would shrink her tumor enough that a surgeon could remove it.
“I’m never a fan of a doctor that gives you an expiration date because nobody really knows,” she says. “Yes, there are statistics but I was lucky enough to have a doctor who said, ‘This is going to be a tough road but let’s just get you through this first phase.’ ”
Because lung cancer is one of the least researched of all cancers, the chemotherapy available to Emily had only a 20 percent success rate. Never a fan of statistics, Emily kept her focus on hope – and her dream of one day meeting the embryos taped to her wall.
After finishing his workdays at a commercial roofing company, Miles spent his nights reading through scientific journals looking for treatment options. Through this exhaustive research, he came across the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, a patient-focused philanthropy founded by its namesake – a 7-year lung cancer survivor herself – to educate patients, fund research and combat the stigma against lung cancer as a smoker’s disease.
“Lung cancer is the biggest cancers in the world, one in every three cancer diagnoses is lung cancer and yet our survival rate is only 17 percent,” Addario tells PEOPLE.
As Dr. Flores explains, lung cancer research receives less funding because of a mass misconception that it only plagues smokers. “People feel it’s a self-inflicted disease but in fact there are a good number of lung cancer patients who have never smoked,” Dr. Flores says.
The couple met Bonnie Addario at the foundation’s annual annual 5K and formed an immediate connection.
“I was so emotional about Emily’s story because she was so young,” Addario says. “It wasn’t fair that she had the disease.”
In addition to pushing Emily to advocate for herself, Addario urged the young couple to celebrate every moment they could.
“Miles and I made a vow to never let cancer take a day from us,” she says. “It threatens so much of your future that our way of fighting back to not let it take any day from us that we did have.”
This vow proved particularly useful when after eight successful rounds of chemotherapy, Emily’s tumor shrank enough that the couple felt hopeful and began searching for a surgeon willing to operate.
“We met one surgeon who basically said, ‘It’s not worth it to operate on you,’ ” Emily recalls. “And I was so depressed and Miles took me to Applebee’s and said, ‘We’re ordering margaritas and you’re here and I’m here and we’re going to find someone.’ ”
After weeks of being told there was no hope, Emily and Miles found Dr. Flores, a thoracic surgeon in New York who was willing to operate.
Emily’s relief turned to fear when a scan confirmed that her entire right lung would need to be removed along with a portion of her diaphragm, and the linings of her lungs and heart.
As Dr. Flores explains, this surgery, called an extrapleural pneumonectomy, is “a very aggressive, very tough treatment.”
Two days before surgery in February 2013, the reality of what was about she was about to undergo washed over Emily.
“I worried, ‘What if I can never walk like a normal person, what if I can’t do the things that normal people do?’ ” Emily says. “I was willing to give that up to live, but when you’re there, the enormity of what you’re about to do hits you.”
“And in typical Miles fashion, he just decided that he was going to make it better.”
The day before Emily’s surgery, Miles threw a “lung day” celebration filled with challenges like blowing out candles, dancing and singing and blowing up balloons.
“He said, ‘We’re going to do all the things that you think you need two lungs for, and then a year from now, we’ll do it again and we can see how you’ve improved,” Emily recalls.
Having met through college athletics, Miles knew that measuring her improvement in this way would make Emily feel more in control of her situation. He also just loves games.
“Competitions and fun are how you get through things for me,” Miles reflects. “I’m glad Emily appreciates it, I think it would annoy most people.”
An Unlikely Victory
On February 8, 2013, Emily’s surgery went off without a hitch and her doctor confirmed that there was no visible sign of cancer remaining in her body, known medically as no evidence of disease (NED).
“When she got out of surgery, she had all of these wires and tubes coming out of her face and she looked at me and asked, ‘Am I NED?’ ” Miles recalls. “So I chased down the surgeon and he told us she was and it was unbelievable.”
As overjoyed as the young couple was, they knew Emily faced a grueling recovery – including adjusting to life with just one lung.
“Obviously the first three days were insane,” Miles recalls. “She could barely breathe, she felt like she had an elephant on her chest, but she started fighting through it and she started walking.”
Just days after her surgery, Emily danced down the halls of Mount Sinai Hospital.
Then came the hardest part. Three weeks after surgery, Emily underwent 28 rounds of high-dose radiation.
Her consummate cheerleader remained by her side. “Miles was there to make me laugh and he was there to hold me when I cried and vice versa,” Emily says.
“He took care of everything and took care of me – I always knew he was going to be a great father because he would be like the fun one, but now I know I couldn t be starting a family with a better person.”
A New Life
Six months after the surgery, Emily and Miles took the first step towards their new lives – buying a house big enough for the family they had always dreamed of. The two remained cautiously optimistic as medical experts advise cancer survivors to wait to reach a two-year mark before starting a family.
“It was almost like the anticipation of waiting for summer break,” Emily says of waiting for the two-year scan. “When you’re a kid you just feel like it’s never going to get there and then you finally get that last day of school. I had such a weight lifted off of my shoulders and it felt like we had a whole new start to life.”
Then came the blog post and a message from Angela Stark, a dear friend who had coached Emily in high school track in Moscow, Idaho. Although Angela and her husband lost touch with Emily over the years, she says she followed Emily’s blog closely and had been seeking the right way to help out.
“Every time I read her blog I always felt like I wanted to do something but I didn t know what to do because we were so far away,” Stark tells PEOPLE. “That’s why when I read she needed a surrogate, I knew, ‘This is our chance.’ ”
In May, Stark and her husband flew from their home in Kentucky to meet with Miles and Emily in Los Angeles.
“It felt like we had never been apart and it had been 15 or 16 years,” Stark reflects.
Three months later, Stark underwent a successful embryo transfer and on September 2nd, her pregnancy was confirmed. She’s having twins girls.
“[Learning about the pregnancy] was this really surreal moment we weren’t sure would ever come, Emily says. “Now that it s here we’re just overjoyed.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Miles adds. “I never thought we were going to get here. I’m so excited now after what we’ve been through for Emily to be able to experience this whole thing. I’m so excited for her to be a mom.”
More than anything, Emily is thrilled to be fulfilling the dream that got her through her biggest challenge so far, ever since her life was put on pause that day in 2012.
“I think I’m most excited because it means that we’re fulfilling the dream that got me through all that treatment,” she says through tears. It means we’ve moved on. Cancer will always be something that’s in our lives – because I want to make life better for lung cancer patients – but it means we’ve moved on and we’ve gotten to that wonderful place that was so far away.”