A ruptured appendix could have killed Emma Sanning ’20. Instead, it may have saved her life – while forever changing the way she sees cancer.
The Nashville, Tennessee, native spent most of her summer running across the country with 4K for Cancer, a nonprofit extension of The Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults dedicated to raising money to fight cancer while creating a community of support for people impacted by the disease. The choice to do that instead of, say, an internship was no accident.
Sanning suddenly got very sick in December of her freshman year, but the worst seemed to be over after seven days recovering in Greenville Memorial Hospital from an emergency operation to treat her burst appendix. Doctors had made a grim and unexpected discovery, however.
“About a week later, they called to tell me that they had biopsied my appendix and had found something super abnormal,” Sanning said. “I had carcinoid cancer on my appendix and colon … They had basically cut straight through it when I’d had my surgery.”
Carcinoid tumors are slow-growing and originate from hormone-producing tissues, which in Sanning’s case were neuroendocrine cells. Neuroendocrine cancers are rare and frequently have no symptoms for a long time, and hers had just started spreading into surrounding lymph nodes.
Once she had recovered sufficiently from her first operation, Sanning had a second surgery the day before spring break in 2017 to remove the rest of the tumor. The aftermath was difficult and painful – she was on a restricted diet and couldn’t carry more than 10 pounds – but six weeks later doctors declared her to be free of cancer.
Just because cancer had left her body didn’t mean it had left her thoughts, however. In another coincidence, Sanning remembered her lacrosse coach bringing 4K for Cancer to her attention in high school. Sanning, an avid runner, decided against participating then because “I didn’t have a big enough connection to cancer to really be able to put my heart and soul into it.”
Her mind changed almost the moment she got a clean bill of health.
“I knew I needed to do it,” Sanning, an economics and politics and international affairs double major, said.
4K for Cancer has grown from a single bicycle ride to three cross-country rides and three runs. Sanning was on Team Baltimore, which left San Francisco on June 17 and traversed 4,000 miles across 13 states before finishing in Baltimore on Aug. 4.
Runners rotated in groups of two or three, and even with the relay format there was plenty of running – starting at 4:30 a.m. every day.
“We ran anywhere from 6 to 16 miles a day, but we only had one 6-mile day. We had four 16-mile days, and I’d say our average was definitely 13 miles,” Sanning said.
She wore out two pair of shoes while covering about 400 miles, and all that time outside looking at the world created memories to last a lifetime. Team Baltimore went through some of the most beautiful places in the United States, though one stands out.
“Honestly, my favorite was probably Utah,” she said. “We went straight over where Forrest Gump decides he’s going to stop running (in Monument Valley), and I was the person who was running that leg.”
More importantly, Sanning was able to come to grips with her frightening experience. 4K for Cancer is limited to participants ages 18-25, and being around peers who had been through the same thing was emotionally healing.
“The first 16-mile day was the day we were running through Colorado. It was the hilliest and highest elevation we had, and I’d never run 16 miles,” she said. “I’d also had a really hard time coming back from my surgery to start running again, so it was the biggest emotional ‘wow’ when I was able to overcome it and do something that big. I distinctly remember running straight up mountains feeling like my legs were going to fall off but having someone beside me telling me ‘you were in a hospital bed a year ago! Let’s get up this mountain! You can do it!’”
Sanning ended up raising more than $10,000 for the Ulman Fund, and she hopes to work in healthcare after graduation.
“On the cancer scale I’m extremely lucky. The run I can already tell has changed my perspective in a million different ways and changed what I value in life. It was the first time I’ve been able to slow down and put an emphasis on the present and not really plan or think about anything outside of waking up and running every day,” she said. “More than anything it gave me 18 people who care more about my story and who I am more than anything else in the world. I gained a lot of confidence in myself and in my story.”