Brynn Embley

PROVO — As a poor college student competing against well-established community leaders and local celebrities, Brynn Embley may be the underdog in the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's national Woman of the Year fundraising competition, but she certainly has incentive to collect a lot of money.

The Brigham Young University student is breathing proof the research the competition finances can change lives: Embley just celebrated her second year of chemotherapy for acute lymphocytic leukemia.

That's right. She celebrated. She baked up some brownies and invited all her friends over for a party to commemorate the day she was diagnosed with blood cancer.

"I think that life is about being happy," she said. "Yes, I was given this hard thing to go through, but frankly, I don't think it's any harder than anything anyone else has to deal with. I try to stay positive."

Embley was animated on a recent weekday, lounging on a well-worn couch in her Provo apartment, as she pointed out a metal port doctors installed beneath her armpit to allow easy access for blood samples and talked about the 23-pill "cocktail" she takes as part of her radiation treatment. She jokingly referred to her newly-grown-in brown curls — she was a long-haired blonde before she started chemotherapy — as her "million-dollar perm."

When the bubbly 21-year-old first got the news that she had been nominated to head up a Woman of the Year campaign, though, she had an uncharacteristic moment of negativity.

Woman of the Year candidates don't gain votes merely by having a good story. Each dollar collected to donate to blood cancer research counts as a vote. Last year's nationally competitive candidates averaged contributions of about $80,000 and the winner brought home about $300,000.

"I thought, 'No way,"' Embley said. "I'm taking classes and I'm still in treatment. Raising that much money — that's a lot to take on."

Blair Sogole, national campaign manager for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, said most candidates for Man or Woman of the Year are prominent community members or people who have already beat cancer.

"As far as candidates who are currently going through treatment, I'm not aware of any others who are running," she said.

Embley's first campaign meeting had to be postponed after she wound up in the hospital for six days with a fever and a low white blood cell count, but she wasn't discouraged.

"I have a really strong campaign team — they're great," she said. "If I have a bad day one of my team members will take care of me."

At this point, Embley's team is working out the kinks in scheduling a 5K race, a red and gold ball and a raffle. Embley's looking forward to writing a lot of letters to potential donors, too.

Predictably, the cause — finding a cure for blood cancer — is sentimental for the college student. She was "practically dead," doctors told her when she stopped by an instant care clinic in 2005 to check out a swollen ankle. Three weeks ago she learned she'll be finishing up chemotherapy in April.

That's part of the reason she decided to accept the nomination to run for Woman of the Year.

"I'm so grateful for the experiences that I have had," she said. "I want to do something for the people who have done so much for me."

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