Student Trustee to the SUHSD for the 2013-2014 school year
USC Trojan Class of 2018
Emma Kasper was a member of the Carlmont class of 2014, and passed away almost a year ago.
May 29, 2014
As seniors get ready to walk in pairs down the football field, pass around inflatable balls in the bleachers, and strut across the stage to receive their diplomas, it’s important to remember those who will not be in attendance.
Emma Kasper, a student who would have been a member of the graduating class of 2014, who loved to dance, play soccer, and planned on joining the swim team, who, her freshman year, decided she wanted to be remembered at Carlmont and leave a mark upon the campus, passed away almost a year ago on June 10.
Unfortunately, because her passing occurred over summer break, she was never officially commemorated by the school.
Now, to honor of one of the students who will not be walking across the stage, here is Emma Kasper’s story.
Soon after her sophomore year began, Emma Kasper realized she had developed a bump on the side of her tongue. Having recently gotten her braces off, she assumed it was a canker sore from her Invisalign. But oddly, after multiple doctor and orthodontist visits, medications weren’t helping the bump go away.
On Oct. 15, 2011, Emma Kasper, along with her three best friends, senior Alison Fitch, Sequoia High School senior Rachel Hoke, and Notre Dame High School senior Haley Moore, went out to the Cheesecake Factory for dinner.
That night during dinner, Emma Kasper kept complaining about the bump on the side of her tongue, and she was even getting worried that it might be cancer.
“We all just laughed and thought it was simply impossible for our best friend to have cancer. Never in a million years did we think that she would not just get oral cancer, but have her life taken away by oral cancer,” said Moore.
The girls reassured Emma Kasper that everything would be fine, but that she should visit a doctor just in case.
Oct. 30, 2011 turned out to be her last day of high school.
On Nov. 4, after unsuccessful doctor visits and finally a biopsy, Emma Kasper found out that the bump her friends thought was a sore on the side of her tongue was actually a cancerous tumor. She was diagnosed with squamous cell carcinoma.
Immediately after diagnosis, she underwent a 12 hour surgery to remove the tumor.
It’s still a mystery as to how she developed an adult disease as a child.
“When she first got diagnosed, I never thought that this disease would take her away from us. I thought it was something that she would have to work through and then she would be okay and live a normal life,” said Moore.
Doctors asked if she smoked, took harmful drugs, or drank heavily, which are usual signs of oral cancer. But Emma Kasper had done none.
Kelly Kasper, Emma Kasper’s mother, said that the doctors never told them what stage the cancer was in.
However, Emma Kasper’s sister, Olivia Kasper, said, “We’re pretty sure it was stage three or four — it had started to metastasize down her neck.”
Emma Kasper immediately had surgery to remove the tumor, which took about half of her tongue, along with the lymph nodes from the right side of her neck. Every day for six weeks she had radiation and chemotherapy around the area to get rid of remaining cells.
“The radiation only took 37 seconds each time. She did really well at first — they played Christmas music well into March for her. But as time passed, it started to play with her head. She started to get anxiety because she couldn’t move anything but her hands when she was under the mask,” said Kelly Kasper.
However, Emma Kasper still appeared healthy and normal to her friends.
“You couldn’t notice anything at first, her speech was just a little bit different because some of her tongue was gone. You couldn’t tell that anything was wrong because it was all in her mouth. She even still got her hair highlighted — totally something she would do. Her hair didn’t change, her face didn’t change. Yeah she lost weight, but nothing super drastic,” said Fitch.
Emma Kasper was even still up for outings with her friends.
”After her first surgery, we went to the Stanford Mall. She could still talk and was up and walking around, but when we were trying clothes on, she told us that she had to go home because she wasn’t feeling well. That’s when Rachel and I realized that it was gonna be really bad. I think that was the last time we went out and did something fun,” said Fitch.
Emma Kasper told Fitch that she’d be back at Carlmont in a few weeks, she just had to recover. but she kept extending that amount of time because the doctors kept finding more cancer in her tongue.
“Her schedule wasn’t very flexible because of her doctor appointments, so I became an annoying mom telling her to text me at least once a week to give me an update,” said Fitch.
One time, however, her report wasn’t reassuring. The cancer had appeared in her left lymph nodes, despite the radiation and chemo.
”That’s when it began to be more noticeable. She started to freak out about her appearance a little bit more. She never fully lost her hair which is really good. But after her surgery she didn’t really want to be seen so she stopped going out as much, “ said Fitch. “That was one of the worst parts for me too, because she began to finally look like a cancer patient.”
Still, Emma Kasper kept her spirit.
“Emma did her research. Day and night. she had to know her doctor’s credentials, where he went to school, his middle name, everything. She challenged him all the time. She was so stubborn and bossy. She wouldn’t let them do anything until she was ready,” said Olivia Kasper.
After her second surgery, Emma Kasper was told she was fine.
“I actually still remember the Facebook status she made announcing her remission and how happy she was,” said Moore.
Emma Kasper threw a party to celebrate her remission, which many of her friends refer to as the “Pink Party.”
“I hadn’t seen Emma in a while before Pink Party, and when I saw her I honestly wanted to cry. She looked so different. She was so much skinnier,” said Fitch.
A few weeks after the party, and only days before a local Relay for Life event that she was a team member of, Emma Kasper felt a new growth on the tip of her tongue.
The tumor was back.
“When she relapsed again, I never really thought that we would lose her. I just thought, ‘here we go, another battle, you got this Em,’” said Moore.
Emma Kasper received her third surgery and a much heavier round of chemo. She was given oral pills which gave her pancreatitis.
“At one point, she texted me telling me she was going to have to get a feeding tube. But she reassured me that it was only because of the swelling from the surgery,” said Fitch.
She had several blood transfusions by this time as well. Luckily, the tumors began to shrink, and it was clear the treatment was working.
Around Christmas time, Emma Kasper thought she was well enough to come back to Carlmont. She had even taken her school picture and gotten her books for the semester. She was ready to begin a normal, high school life again.
But then, the tumor came back to the original spot on the side of her tongue.
“She stopped texting, so I began talking to her mom, who told me she didn’t have much energy to text anymore. At that point I knew it was really bad. When you don’t have the energy to text, it says a lot about your physical condition,” said Fitch.
Emma Kasper’s condition got progressively worse as the months went by. While at Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital, it was discovered that her tumor had grown and was blocking her throat and making it hard to breathe. She immediately had a tracheotomy.
“The options Emma had were to either have her tongue removed to give her some more time and a life without a tongue or to keep it, knowing the tumor would return. So she was constantly weighing the options. It sounds great removing it because you get to be alive, but when you think about never talking, never eating — I mean, how often do you go to lunch with your friends? She’d never be able to do that,” said Olivia Kasper.
Around this time, Emma Kasper’s terminal illness finally hit Fitch.
“I remember I was in Langkusch’s AP English class and was in a group text with Haley and Rachel. One of them texted us saying that Emma didn’t have much time and that they should visit her soon. I tried to focus in the class seminar, but I couldn’t, and started crying.” said Fitch.
“Ms. Langkusch was super understanding. As I was walking out, she said something that really helped me. She asked if I had seen Emma in the past couple of weeks. I told her I hadn’t. She told me I really need to see her in order to let her go. I told her I didn’t want to see her like that, but she told me the best thing for me right now would be to see her, because that would be the only thing that would help me through this,” said Fitch.
Moore had difficulty handling the news as well.
“All these thoughts came up like, ‘How am I going to live without her? How am I going to handle her death? Why does it have to be my best friend?’ But I realized I couldn’t waste my time thinking about these things — I had to be there for my best friend,” said Moore.
Although hearing the devastating news was tough, seeing her physical condition was even harder to handle.
“I saw her in May  of junior year and that’s when it got really bad. She couldn’t walk anymore and her face was super swollen, and her neck caved in on the side. The rest of her body was really skinny. I refused to believe that was her, because a couple weeks before that she looked so much better,” said Fitch.
It was Emma Kasper who made the decision to stop fighting her battle with cancer.
“Emma had always wanted to be a whale. She made a comment to me one time that she wanted to be a whale when she died someday. In the emergency room, she looked at me and said “Olivia, you know where I’ll be when I die, right?” And I looked at her and made a swimming motion with my arms, and she looked at me and said, “Yeah.” I think that was when she realized she wasn’t going to make it out of this,” said Olivia Kasper.
The topic of dying and what happens afterwards became a common subject matter in the Kasper household.
“Emma would ask questions like, what do you think happens when you die? And we would tell her what we thought. We had a spiritual counselor that would come and answer questions she had in a spiritual, rather than religious way,” said Olivia Kasper.
“The counselor would ask her, ‘When you think of comfort, what pops into your head?’ and Emma would say a rainy day or the beach, and she would say, ‘Well that is where you need to put your mind to relax and comfort you.’ So when she got upset she would close her eyes and think about that,” said Olivia Kasper.
“It’s really hard to think about anyone making that decision, knowing what’s ahead of them,” said Fitch. “I saw her the day that she died. Seeing her like that really helped me — I knew she couldn’t go on anymore living like that. I wouldn’t want anyone to continue living in that condition.”
Moore Agreed. “Part of Emma’s death came as a relief to me. A relief that she wasn’t suffering anymore, that she wouldn’t have to live with the pain of this anymore.”
The night before her passing, Emma Kasper, for the first time that Fitch was aware, became emotional and scared about her condition.
“I was talking to her sister the night before, and Olivia told me that Emma had a panic attack. Emma knew her body was going through the process of dying, and that was terrifying. It’s a specific process — her mom even had a book about it. Her breathing started to get longer and longer and was catching,” said Fitch.
“She was panicking but there was nothing we could do. We gave her ativan, and kept hitting the panic button on her morphine pump to give her an extra dose every 15 minutes,” said Olivia Kasper.
The following day, on June 10, 2013, Emma Kasper passed away. She was only 16 years old.
“When Monday rolled around, everyone happened to be on their way to visit. Around 11:59 a.m., I noticed something didn’t look right with Emma. When I went in to check her pulse, she was gone. 12:00 p.m. on the dot. That’s Emma’s timing for you. And since the whole family was on their way, we had to tell them the news as they were walking in,” said Olivia Kasper. “It was like she waited for us to have the comfort of other people being here so that she could die.”
“Losing someone so close to you is so surreal. I think about Emma every day and ask myself what I would do if she was still here. Some days I think about it and smile because of how great of a memory she is to me and some days I break down crying,” said Moore. “But I know Emma is in a better place and that I have an angel watching over me every second of the day.”
Emma Kasper’s passing was also a reminder of the fragility of life.
“Emma was a symbol of hope, love, and happiness. She was so fun, funny, beautiful, and smart. She fought so hard the whole time. Her passing made me think about life and my friends so much. It made me realize how grateful I am for everything I have, my friends, my family, my life, and that these random horrible things could happen to anyone. Anyone. You can be perfect just like Emma and have something like this happen,” said Sequoia High School senior Hank Wilkerson.
Emma Kasper’s celebration of life was on July 13, 2013 at Twin Pines Park in Belmont.
“It was perfect and pink. My dad had this idea that we’d get 16 balloons, and at the end of the service we’d let them go. But when we let them go, they got stuck in the tree. So we went about the day and everyone was eating and talking but all of a sudden one of the balloons popped. And right as everyone looked up, the other balloons started floating away,” said Olivia Kasper.
“It was on Emma’s time. She was still in charge,” said Kelly Kasper.
Emma Kasper’s ashes are currently at home with her family.
“Since she wanted to be a whale, we’re hopefully going to Hawaii next June to spread some of her ashes in the ocean,” said Olivia Kasper.
“They did take her tumor and they’re using it for science. She wanted that,” said Kelly Kasper.
While it is wonderful that Carlmont seniors are celebrating and embarking on a new life journey, it is also important to remember Emma Kasper and other students that won’t have the privilege of walking across the stage in only a few days — A privilege that many take for granted.