The pain started in Emma Smrekars back, last spring. Then it spread to her side. Next came extreme fatigue.
Eating was the worst; it gave the Stillwater teen a horrible stomachache. A change in diet didnt help, and tests for gastrointestinal issues came back negative. She kept losing weight and getting weaker and weaker.
By the end of August, Emma had lost 30 pounds, could barely take a bite and couldnt sleep through the night without medication.
On the night of Sept. 1, Emmas parents, Scott and Lindsey, raced her to the emergency room at Childrens Hospital in St. Paul. A CT scan showed the cause of her unbearable pain: a tumor the size of a cantaloupe in her abdomen.
Within hours, Emma, 17, was transferred to Childrens Hospital in Minneapolis. Two days later, she was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the next 11 days in the hospital, where she underwent three surgeries, including the placement of a port for chemotherapy.
She has been in and out of the hospital ever since. Next month, she will start five weeks of intensive proton radiation therapy at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester.
Through it all, the residents of Stillwaters Oak Glen neighborhood have rallied to help. Theyve installed teal lights Emmas favorite color outside each house. Theyve brought meals, donated money and stepped up in every way possible, Lindsey Smrekar said.
I cant even talk about it without crying, she said. Its so hard to go through something like this. Everyone is so lovely, and theyve been so supportive. I wasnt expecting anything. Im just trying to figure out how to survive day-to-day and get my daughter through this. Its just this wonderful gift and support and love from everyone.
Emma is a senior at St. Croix Preparatory Academy in Baytown Township. Last year, she served as the school photographer and worked on the yearbook. She has not had the strength to attend school this fall, but she expects to graduate on time. She needs only three credits to graduate.
Emma loves taking pictures, drawing and painting. Her favorite artist is Van Gogh. At the top of her bucket list is seeing The Starry Night at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Shes the type of teen who tutors young neighbors in math and volunteers as a dog walker at the Animal Humane Society in Woodbury.
Emma is determined and persistent, Lindsey Smrekar said. If she doesnt get something right away, she just keeps doing it until she gets it.
Emma took her own senior photos. She set up a tripod near Lake McKusick in Stillwater, connected her Canon Rebel T6 camera with her phone and set up the angle and everything how she wanted it, Lindsey Smrekar said. When she told me to hit the button on the phone, I did. It was all her.
Her favorite TV show is The Office. Shes seen every episode at least 14 times thats a guess, but probably not embellishing, Scott Smrekar said. She loves Jim and the pranks that he pulls on Dwight. She has the Office Lego set, an Office pillow case, COVID masks, t shirts, sweatshirts, blankets, even a painted sign in her bedroom.
Many of the Dunder-Mifflin treasures were gifts from friends and family after learning of her diagnosis, he said.
The diagnosis has been hard on Emma, Lindsey Smrekar said. She is such a strong girl. I cant even imagine. I would have been doubled over and crying. Eventually, when she got into the hospital bed, she was puking from the pain.
Emma can still eat, but she receives most of her nourishment through a feeding tube. Her goal is around 1,000 calories a day. At first, she was into a lot of bakery products donuts and a lot of toast, Lindsey Smrekar said. But her taste buds are changing. Even foods she used to love like Dr. Pepper sodas, Twix and Kit Kat chocolate bars she doesnt now.
Emma loves the color teal because it reminds her of the ocean. Her favorite photo is one she took during a family vacation to Key West, Fla., last year. Her Make-A-Wish request is to go to Maui.
Chemotherapy has shrunk her tumor to the size of a baseball. Doctors at Mayo plan to treat her with 33 rounds of proton therapy, which has shown promise in treating several kinds of cancer. It can cause fewer side effects than traditional radiation, because doctors can better control where the proton beams deposit their energy.
They can stop it at a certain point, so it doesnt hurt any of her important organs that they are trying to keep safe, Lindsey Smrekar said. They want to safely get her better so she doesnt have a ton of side effects afterwards or problems later in life.
Hopefully, it just doesnt come back, her mother said. She can go to college and live a normal life.
Emma wants to study neuropathology at Bethel University in Arden Hills and specialize in cancer research because she just wants to make life better for other kiddos with cancer, Lindsey Smrekar said.
The Smrekars moved to their house on Swenson Street in Oak Glen from the citys North Hill neighborhood in 2018.
The first neighbors to introduce themselves were Dan and Amy Stoffer, who live across the street. They brought a pizza and a 2-liter bottle of soda.
After learning of Emmas diagnosis, Dan Stoffer came up with the idea of illuminating the neighborhood with teal lights. Many of the houses still have the original matching globe lamp posts that were installed when Oak Glen was developed. The lights stretch the length of Swenson Street and extend around the corners to Oak Glen Drive and Oak Glen Trail. Every household in the immediate vicinity 23 in all is participating.
No matter what, she can see those lights, Amy Stoffer said. Her neighbors know that shes going through a struggle, and we wanted her to know that we stand by her and her family.
It turns out finding the perfect shade of teal in a LED light bulb isnt easy.
The couple ordered multiple bulbs from different online shopping sites before settling on an 85-watt color-changing LED light bulb with a remote control they found on Amazon.com. They ordered enough for the neighborhood.
The Stoffers, who have lived in Oak Glen since 2005, wheeled around a wagon with brown paper bags, which included the teal light bulb, a flier describing Emmas situation and an ask for an Emma Fun Fund. We were thinking theyd get her a nice Lego set or something, Scott Smrekar said.
Instead, the Stoffers returned with a gift box filled with cash, checks, a robe, cards and messages. The neighbors raised $1,170, enough for Emma to buy the new Canon EOS 90D camera she had been wanting.
Everybody gave money, even during this time, when theres a little bit of uncertainty That says a lot about our neighborhood, Dan Stoffer said.
Jon and Shelly Hill, for example, started a Meal Train online account for neighbors to take the Smrekars meals on Wednesday night. The Hills brought pulled pork and gluten-free apple crisp one week; next-door neighbor Josh Mogren brought over a full rack of very tasty ribs on another.
The Stoffers, who have two sons, Ben, 13 and Henry, 11, signed up to take chicken tortilla soup to the Smrekars.
We just know as parents how terrifying that must be for them and their whole family, and we just want to be there for them, Amy Stoffer said. I was really thankful for the opportunity to show our kids how important it is to care about other people, to take action when they see something that needs doing and to step up for other people.
The teal lights are expected to stay lit for as long as Emma is working to overcome her cancer, Amy Stoffer said. The couple bought extra bulbs in case replacements are needed.
The show of support has lifted the family through this hard year, Scott Smrekar said.
It means so much, he said. There is a lot of division right now in the country. We have Biden supporters and Trump supporters out here. Youll see Black Lives Matter signs, Blue Lives Matter signs. But none of this seemed to factor in whatsoever when the neighborhood learned of Emmas diagnosis. Everyone was so gracious and helpful. All they wanted to know was: How is she doing? What do you need? What can I do to help? We are so grateful.
A GoFundMe has been set up to help offset the cost of Emma Smrekars medical bills. To donate, go to https://www.gofundme.com/f/emmasmrekarstrong.