Overcoming the Impossible: One Woman’s Brave Journey Through Fertility Issues, a Brain Tumor, and Learning to Run Again

john emily beau kiss

I met Emily Ballenger in 2019 when I joined a local Barre3 Studio, which she owned and operated in Austin, Texas. I was immediately drawn to her and the energy, love, and passion she brought when teaching classes. She not only inspired me, but you could tell how she positively affected the other members of the Barre3 community as well.

Over the next several months, we slowly developed a friendship beyond teacher and student. It felt natural to open up to her, and Emily was often an open book, rarely shy about sharing tidbits about her life. I soon learned about her love and commitment to her husband, her faith, her training for marathons, and how passionate she was about running and being a studio owner and fitness instructor. I also discovered how much she really wanted to become a mother.

emily teaching class
Image Credit: Emily Ballenger.

Shortly after we met, in the fall of 2019, Emily and her husband, John, began their IVF journey. Due to her “advanced maternal age” of 42, they were encouraged to start treatments immediately. A fertility journey that she describes as scary and uncomfortable. There were so many unknowns throughout the process, and the statistical outcomes were what she described as “horrific.” They left the doctor’s office with more questions than answers. However, they decided to move forward with the treatments. 

During the process, they learned that she had a significant number of eggs for her age; however, the quality was unfortunately poor. By the end of the first cycle, they were able to retrieve 31 eggs, but after genetic testing, only one embryo was viable for life. Disappointed but also grateful to have at least one, they scheduled the transfer, which ultimately didn’t result in a positive pregnancy result. 

They continued to try two more times with failed results and many tears shed by her and her husband. “The news rocked our world. It was the first time I’d seen my husband cry,” Emily shared with me.

However, throughout the IVF journey, they were continuing to conceive naturally.

Fast forward to early 2020. The world was in chaos, on the cusp of what felt like a total collapse from a global pandemic that had hit hard. As a small business owner, she had grave concerns about keeping the doors open and still serving a community she adored while she and John were trying to start a family. 

On the day she had to close the studio, she was suffering a miscarriage without even knowing she had gotten pregnant naturally. Through all of her fear, shock, and pain, she kept a brave face, continued to teach classes, and internalized her immense grief privately.

emily john penny
Image Credit: Emily Ballenger.

As she always does, Emily turned to running. She began training for the Berlin marathon that was scheduled for September 2021. There, in her element, Emily could process the devastation and anguish she felt from her miscarriage, the failed IVF treatments, and the sacrifices she had made along the way. 

Finishing the marathon in 3 hours and 33 minutes is still what she considers her greatest running accomplishment and is the most proud of. It might not have been her fastest marathon time, but it was the most special because it was her second fastest time at the age of 45. 

Finally, some good news, though! In December of that year, after completing the Berlin marathon, the couple learned they would have a baby through natural conception. It was a miracle of all miracles, and I saw firsthand how thrilled and excited they were to welcome their new little one into the world.

emily john ultrasound
Image Credit: Emily Ballenger.

However, before discovering she was pregnant while training for the Berlin marathon, Emily had been experiencing random “electric shock” like sensations through her face, jaw, and neck. Because these neurological episodes would come and go, she ignored them for quite a while until they began happening so frequently that she no longer could brush them off.

They went from being slightly annoying to extremely painful and often debilitating to the point that she couldn’t perform simple tasks such as brushing her teeth, eating, and sometimes even talking. Alarm bells sounded for the pregnant soon-to-be mom who had just begun the third trimester of her pregnancy.   

She immediately called her general family doctor, and he ordered an MRI stat. In June 2022, one month before she was supposed to give birth to a baby boy, Emily was diagnosed with an epidermoid cyst, a rare type of brain tumor engulfing her trigeminal nerve and brain stem. Because of where it was located, she was experiencing symptoms similar to trigeminal neuralgia, which is often referred to as the “suicide disease.”

Emily shared, “In many cases, the cause is never found, so the tumor diagnosis actually came as somewhat of a relief to me and my family. We learned the tumor formed during the gestation period when I was still in the womb, and it slowly grew over time. Because of the location of my tumor, the severity of the symptoms, and the complications that could arise should it get any bigger, I would need surgery to have it removed.”

In July 2022, Emily delivered a beautiful, healthy baby boy, the couple named Beau, via C-section. Three months later, in October, she was scheduled to go under the knife again to remove the tumor that was threatening her quality of life. However, the risks of the craniotomy weighed heavily on her despite the relief she felt when she learned the diagnosis and knew there was an answer and hopeful resolution for the pain she was experiencing. She also recognized that recovery would be long and arduous.

“Learning the tumor was benign and removing it could potentially relieve some or all of my symptoms gave me hope,” However, Emily continued, “Movement was not only my passion– it was my job. And with a 3-month-old at home, I worried I would lose my ability to be the mom, runner, instructor, and business owner I needed and wanted to be.”

All of her questions were terrifying unknowns, but the surgery was an absolute must that had to be performed. 

After seven grueling hours, her neurosurgeon was able to remove the tumor successfully, and the healing could begin. Emily’s first questions to her mom when she woke from anesthesia were, “Am I okay?” and “How are my legs?” She and her legs were okay, although it would take a while to regain her balance, strength, and confidence.

emily walker
Image Credit: Emily Ballenger.

In true Emily Ballenger style, she was determined to return to her pre-surgery self and continue to run with the joy she felt with every step. A mere three weeks after surgery, she received a call from a woman at The Brain Tumor Charity inviting her to run in the 2023 London Marathon. 

“I was in total shock, and my first response was, “I can’t even walk across my living room without my walker!” But realizing I’d just been given the opportunity to run my 6th world major, I felt it impossible to say no.”

After talking it over with her family and her team of doctors and receiving the green light, Emily had a new goal to work toward. She was going to run the London Marathon, and she was going to do it with immense joy. In December, just two months after her surgery, she began training for the marathon. 

Through hard work with her trainer, physical therapy, her family’s love, and pure perseverance, Emily completed the London Marathon as a Six Star Finisher in 4 hours and 32 minutes.

emily london marathon
Image Credit: Emily Ballenger.

When I sat down with my friend to learn in detail about her incredible journey, she wrapped up her thoughts with these final words, “While there’s no doubt I have been fortunate and am living out the dream that so many hopeful parents wish for, it doesn’t erase the trauma I experienced to get here. I still think about our one little transferred embryo that didn’t make it. I think about my miscarriage. Have I made peace with all that’s happened? I still have some work to do, but I have learned to trust God’s timing. He will lead the way.

Emily’s story is one of unwavering strength, tireless work ethic, and unrelenting determination in the face of insurmountable adversities. Her journey is a testament to her ability to triumph over challenges that would seem impossible to most.

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With a passion for travel, great food, and beautiful art, Julie put aside her 15-year career in the tech industry and dove head-first into a more creative sphere. Utilizing her degree in Communications, she is pursuing freelance writing. An avid traveler, Julie has experience writing and documenting the amazing spots she has visited and explored, the delicious food she has tasted, and the incredible art she has admired and purchased! When she’s not writing, she can be spotted around Austin, TX, at various art gallery openings, having a delicious meal with her husband and friends, and playing with her two dogs.

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