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Emily Dao's Death at 20

T. Rees Shapiro, a 2009 graduate of Virginia Tech, is a copy aide at The Washington Post. He has become a prolific contributor to the obituary page and wrote today's Local Life story about Emily Dao, whom he first met in college when he began chronicling her unlikely bout with the cancer that took her life Aug. 12 at age 20.

Shapiro writes:
Last year, as a reporter for the Collegiate Times, Virginia Tech's student newspaper, I had the tremendous honor of meeting Emily Dao. She was a promising young student who had been diagnosed with late stage colon cancer. She was kind enough to let me follow her and write about her battle against cancer.

When I first met her, I remember thinking there was no way this ebullient girl with a solar bright smile and infectious laugh is suffering from cancer. It was early December. She was in the middle of decorating a gingerbread house with her Delta Zeta sisters in the sorority house. There must have been 20 girls at one point packed inside the tiny room. Every one of her friends seemed magnetized by her presence. They watched a romantic movie, listened to pop songs. They gossiped about boys, celebrities and TV Shows. They ate gumdrops, milk duds and icing by the spoonful.

When we talked about her situation, she explained that most people with her type of cancer give up. But not Emily. She refused to sit still for more than a second, sleep for more than four hours straight, and take any less than 20 credit hours a semester. She intended to become the next Warren Buffett and had the attitude that nothing could stop her.

Just listening to her talk about her life's ambitions and goals exhausted me. She made defeating cancer seem like it would be her second hobby, right up there after saving the world.

She was charismatic, confident and motivated. Throughout all of our conversations together, Emily never complained and always remained optimistic. She reminded me to enjoy the small, simple, sweet things in life, like the small moments where one can sit and be surrounded by friends eating vanilla frosting with a spoon.

Eventually, she became so weak we ended up having to communicate by e-mail -- her throat was too raw from chemotherapy to talk above a whisper.

After one e-mail exchange, she ended it with this:

"And thanks for everything. Your last article was really amazing and I just want to thank you for that."

I learned a lot while reporting on Emily's fight against cancer, including that strength and courage come in many ages.

By Adam Bernstein  |  August 30, 2009; 3:00 AM ET
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Thank you for this moving story about Emily, drawn from her life as well as yours. Reporting not just the events but the lives behind the events makes the Post a great newspaper - and allows people like Emily to live on and enrich our lives.

Posted by: davidfairfax | August 30, 2009 7:47 AM | Report abuse

I didnt know her, but I have a daughter just a few years younger than Emily, preparing for college and career goals. It hits home and makes me want to hug my daughter a bit more than I am accustomed to doing. Emily is an inspirational not only to those suffering with cancer but also to me, an adult healthy male with issues or complaints that now seem so trivial and mundane. God Bless you Emily, God bless your family and friends.

Posted by: Fred23 | August 30, 2009 9:57 AM | Report abuse

To Emily's friends/family: hope they get a bit of solace in the realization that Emily led a more inspired, productive life in her 20 years than some people do if provided with five times the years that she had.

Posted by: joelcavicchia | August 30, 2009 5:14 PM | Report abuse

I'm Emily's dad. Thanks for everything you've done for her, Shapiro. Your articles on Emily were wonderful. You're wonderful! Thank you!

Posted by: chinhdao | September 3, 2009 11:02 AM | Report abuse

I had the lucky chance of meeting Emily several months back when she came to the visit her cousin here in the OC. Though I only got to meet Emily once (briefly too), I felt this great positive aura about her, a genuine charismatic quality. She was so upbeat, had a great sense of humor, and an amazingly infectious smile ("tuoi")... I too couldn't believe that she was suffering from cancer.

Hearing stories of her being so selfless through her ordeal was so inspiring. Knowing that there are still strong/unselfish people out there regardless of what they've been dealt with (and at such a young age) is a breath of fresh air. She truly is a special person.

I feel so blessed to have had the chance to meet Emily and will have a fond and everlasting memory of her... Uncle Chinh, I hope to meet you one day. My sincerest regards to you and your family.

Posted by: PD73 | September 4, 2009 8:37 PM | Report abuse

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