Last August 4, when Emma Sanning stuck her toes in the Atlantic Ocean in Baltimore, she knew she was a different person from the one who had started a cross-country journey 49 days earlier in San Francisco.
While her body reflected the physical indications of almost daily aerobic exercise, what had happened on the inside was even more evident. Looking back, she describes a time of learning “to let the little things in life go, and how to hold on to the dearest moments.”
Emma, a 2016 Brentwood High School graduate and now a junior at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina, last summer was part of a 19-member team running with “4K for Cancer,” sponsored by the Ulman Cancer Fund for Young Adults.
According to the organization’s website, over 70,000 young adults (ages 15-39) are diagnosed with cancer every year. Its mission is “changing lives by creating a community of support for young adults, and their loved ones, impacted by cancer.”
Participants in 4K are assigned to a running or cycling team that goes coast-to-coast, each team collectively covering about 4,000 miles. Donations of accommodations and food are solicited along the way. Team members also raise funds for the Ulman organization, with Emma having raised more than $10,000.
How it all started
So why would a college freshman choose to spend the major part of her summer break running anywhere from six to 16 miles a day, over all kinds of terrain, depending on the kindness of strangers?
The answer goes back to late 2016, when Emma was thinking about what she would do during her first college summer break. She had met with a mentor and coach from her high school days who had participated in 4K for Cancer, and had encouraged Emma to look into it. She did, but decided not to go forward since she had had no personal experience with cancer herself, or with a close family member.
That, however, would soon change.
Not long after deciding not to pursue 4K, Emma became very sick. She ended up at a hospital in Greenville, where she had an emergency appendectomy. Her appendix burst and she spent a week in the hospital.
When she was released, she took a medical leave from school and came back home to Brentwood to recuperate, skipping her exams.
While home, she was asked to speak to the BHS chapter of Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She talked about experiences of her first semester and how, as she prayed about her future, she felt God impressing upon her to “see the now, the big ways God was in my life each day.”
Little did she know how much she would need to rely on that in the days ahead.
In the car on the way home that day, Emma received an unexpected call from her doctor in Greenville, who told her a routine biopsy following the appendectomy showed some “concerning spots” and more surgery would be necessary.
Although stunned by the news, she went back to Furman in January, completed her first-semester exams and stayed on track with school. She came home to have surgery at Vanderbilt over spring break.
Her diagnosis was carcinoid cancer, a rare, slow-growing cancer that sends dangerous hormones through the lymph system. Her surgeon removed 1.5 feet of her colon.
Remarkably, she was able to return to school, but on a strict diet and with orders not to exercise for six weeks.
Subsequent scans were clear and on April 5, 2017, Emma was cancer free. She finished the semester, completing her freshman year on schedule.
She thought back on her decision about 4K for Cancer. Not only did she now have the personal experience, but she also learned that her father, Chris Sanning, had had a similar diagnosis in 2015 which her parents had chosen not to share with her and her younger sister, Josie, at the time. He is also now cancer free.
With those two diagnoses, she reconsidered and applied. She was eventually accepted as part of “Team Baltimore” for summer 2018.
The next year was spent in training. Starting a few months after her second surgery, she began to take baby steps — .2 miles, then .5 miles, then a mile and more, until she was ready for the adventure of a lifetime.
The 4K journey
Joining her team near the Golden Gate Bridge, Emma began Day One as she would begin each day of running with her team – with a “dedication circle,” in which team members would talk about a person or persons they would think about that day, often a cancer patient or survivor.
Day Three was especially significant, when her team members dedicated their miles to her, the only member of the team who had had cancer herself. They wrote Emma’s name on their legs with markers.
“I was an absolute puddle of tears,” she said. “These people, whom I had only known for three days, showed me endless support and love. “That moment I knew this experience would change my life forever.”
Running was done relay style, with runners alternating running a few miles, then riding in the “host van” that tracked along with them, with van operators handling solicitations of accommodations and food.
There were ten non-running days where they were able to rest or do volunteer work, often for cancer organizations.
Accommodations varied from gymnasiums to actual homes. Emma’s heart was warmed by the kindness of those hosting them.
On her blog, where Emma narrated her journey, she told the story of a group of women at a church in California who were her first hosts. They provided dinner and breakfast, and many of them shared personal stories of how cancer had touched them. They told the team how proud of them they were.
“I have never felt so overwhelmed by love than I have by hearing a stranger tell me she was proud of me,” she wrote on her blog.
That experience would mirror many to come as Emma and her team were recipients of countless acts of hospitality and selflessness. That would include Mike in Salida, Colorado on Day 20, who contacted the 4K run director and said he was a “Team Emma” supporter. He met the team when they arrived at the church where they were staying and provided them access to a pool. Emma learned through a text message from her mother that Mike had been a high school friend of hers.
That night Emma and many of her team members went to a restaurant in town where a band, of which Mike was a member, was playing. During the band’s set, Mike spoke to the crowd about the team. Tips from that night’s show were donated to the Ulman fund.
Finish line and beyond
Day 49 was, of course, a special one as the team made its way to the finish line in Baltimore, where Emma was gratified to see her family and a handful of friends there to cheer her on. The team ran the entire way that day – 18 miles.
The journey was complete, although in many ways the last day signaled a new beginning for Emma. She plans to continue to be a support to others affected by cancer and will try to never take for granted the kindness of others. She remains in awe of that kindness as she looks back over the past two-plus years, and “sometimes my mouth still falls open” thinking about it, she said.
Images still fresh in her mind include friends at Furman who encouraged her to go to the hospital the first time (and stayed in the waiting room while she had surgery); those who made donations to the Ulman fund; friends and family who sent her notes of encouragement; and the hosts who gave so generously to her team along the way.
She counts her 4K team members, who showed her “how to encourage always and how to empower others,” among her closest friends.
With that in mind, she encouraged her younger sister to follow in her footsteps and join a 4K team. This summer Josie will be a part of “Team Boston,” running for her sister, her dad and a Brentwood friend.
Already a person of faith, the cancer experience deepened that for Emma, to the point that she even sees her diagnosis as a blessing. Even before getting sick, she remembers struggling to find her place during her first semester at Furman. As she prayed, she sensed God saying, “I’ve got you.”
Today she sees how true that was.
All medical checkups have been good since her last surgery. She will continue to have a yearly MRI. Carcinoid cancer is slow growing, so she said it will be important to “monitor my health for many years.”
If recent history is any indication, Emma will take in stride whatever the future holds, and will pass on to others the kindness she has been shown.
Bob McKinney is a longtime Brentwood resident, happy husband and proud father, father-in-law and grandfather. Email him at email@example.com.