Gilbert Desert Ridge senior juggles cancer treatments to graduate on time - East Valley Tribune: Mesa

Gilbert Desert Ridge senior juggles cancer treatments to graduate on time

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Posted: Tuesday, May 27, 2014 9:30 am

Emily Kocher’s parents were cool enough to allow the 18-year-old to get her first tattoo on her most recent birthday. Of all the possible combinations, the Mesa resident opted for a gold ribbon on her right forearm.

The gold ribbon won’t mean too much to the average person. But to Kocher it represents her survival after six months of cancer treatments.

Kocher’s story goes back to September, when she first noticed a problem with her knee that made it appear as if it collapsed. She first thought it was an issue with her calcium levels or something relatively innocuous, but she left the doctor’s office with a diagnosis of sarcoma.

“I didn’t know what to think really. It really scared me because I lost two grandparents to cancer and I have an aunt with brain cancer. I was terrified,” Kocher said.

What came next was six months of treatment and heavy doses of chemotherapy until she entered remission on March 5. Kocher was fortunate to catch the cancer early and avoid it spreading beyond her knee.

Everything went by in a blur, Kocher said, and she handled it by taking things one day at a time. That’s not exactly how she prefers to deal with the events going on in her life.

“I always try to plan ahead, and it’s one of those things where you can’t plan ahead,” she said.

An additional ramification of the treatment for Kocher was the impediment it had on her final year at Desert Ridge High School.

She was on track to graduate alongside her classmates, but the treatments and the side effects that forced her to leave campus during the first semester put her at risk to miss out on the pomp and circumstance.

“The biggest thing that went into my head was would I be able to graduate on time,” she said.

Kocher did her best to ensure that happened by enrolling in online classes after she lost the strength to attend classes in person every day. She was strong enough to head back to school this past semester and offered a sizable thank you to her teachers for providing her assignments in advance so she could get ahead.

Kocher’s teachers have a slightly different take on the situation, as they said it was Kocher who requested the assignments while undergoing her chemotherapy treatments.

“I told Emily that I don’t want her to be concerned with her economics class work, that she should focus on resting and recovering,” economics teacher Dan Caryl wrote in an email. “I would excuse Emily from her course work so she would have one less stress in her life. Emily, obviously frustrated, demanded her work that she wanted to keep up with her class work because she was determined to earn high marks in her classes.”

Both Caryl and English teacher Stacy Endman praised Kocher for her tenacity throughout her treatments. Caryl said she never lost her dignity even after the chemotherapy took her hair — she was honest about having to wear replacement coverings like wigs and bandanas and about being bald.

Endman, in her email, spoke about Kocher’s courage, perseverance and her outlook on the whole situation. An example of the lattermost came on the last day of classes when Kocher brought in a stuffed toy shaped like a smiley face.

She named it Carl, the happy cell, then flipped it inside out to form the bizarro version of the happy entity. That one turned out to be Carl, the cancer cell, and Endman said the entire presentation “had the class in hysterics.”

“It was the epitome of Emily ... finding the humor in any situation ... and teaching her classmates how to laugh in the face of adversity,” Endman said.

All of the effort Kocher put into her classes and the assistance from her teachers paid off, as the Desert Ridge student became an alumna after the school’s graduation ceremony last week. Kocher even received a shout out from her principal during the event.

It didn’t quite feel like the end of high school for Kocher, who said missing the front half of the school year became part of the blur induced by the cancer treatment. She didn’t really grasp that she had finished her education until she received the diploma on Wednesday night.

Her next step is to return to her native New Mexico to begin college at Central New Mexico Community College this fall. She plans to study criminology and wants to work with juvenile delinquents after she completes her studies.

Things looking pretty good for Kocher, but lingering in the background is the potential for her cancer to come back. It’s a reality that remains on her mind, as she can never know for sure if another bout of cancer could curtail her career plans or the rest of her life.

Hope remains with Kocher in the birthday tattoo. The gold ribbon is a symbol for childhood cancer, and it serves as a reminder that she can make it through the fight.

“I look at that and see I’m a survivor,” she said. “I’ll always be a survivor.”

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