In the theme of breast cancer awareness month, please click the pink ribbon in the sidebar.
In October of 2006 I returned to the classroom following a six month leave for breast cancer treatments. My first day back to work presented many obstacles. One, I wasn’t ready to go back. Two, I needed to decide what type of fashion statement I intended to make with my fuzzy bald head. Three, I had to figure out how much I should share with the students about my illness. Four, it was the middle of the second quarter and I didn’t even know my students. Five, I wasn’t ready to go back to work. I’m sorry? Oh, I already listed that? Too bad. Let’s just make I WASN’T READY TO GO BACK TO WORK numbers five through ten.
I wasn’t ready to go back to work because I felt like crap. I was weak. The chemo and radiation treatments had left me anemic, depressed, and with all kinds of digestive system challenges. Seven months before, when the peanut size malignancy had been discovered, I was capable of body boarding five foot waves, not to mention duck diving the same wall of water should it break in front of me while I was paddling out. I could paddle out 150 yards and catch a wave within minutes of lining up. I could power walk for miles with a friend and gab the entire time. I was also capable of waking up at 4 AM, grading and prepping for two hours before work, teaching all day with the necessary energy to face a room full of 25 to 30 teenagers every 70 minutes, and then, at the end of the day, attending meetings after school that usually managed to make me feel like an unfocused and bored ADD wannabe. Then I’d go home to my family and attempt to keep pace with all that is required to run a home with teenagers.
Seven months later, I was not the same person. I needed to sleep eight to nine hours a night, plus a two hour nap every afternoon. My husband was taking me for walks to help me gain my strength back. Even going slowly, I would break out in a cold sweat and sometimes my legs and hands would start trembling. I was just two weeks out of treatments and gaining back my health was requiring my full time attention. But my sick days had run out. My doctors would have preferred I take more time off, but taking off without pay was not an option. I preferred the physical challenge of going back to work over causing even more financial hardship to my family.
I wasn’t looking too pretty and I sure did not want to scare the students. Rumors can run rampant with teens and their dramas and a colleague had already warned me that the kids were saying I was dying. Or dead. Tough as they act, I didn’t want to walk in looking like a tale from the crypt. My students from the year before would remember how I’d been, but the poor kids in my class this year didn’t know me, didn’t know my pale, sallow, mushy, and bald self was not the norm. But I had a problem in that I wasn’t wearing wigs. That’s another story, but for multiple reasons, wigs and I were not a suitable partnership. At home I went sans headwear. Trips to the store – baseball cap. Fancy outing? A scarf.
Our school has a no hat or scarf rule inside the buildings. Well, OK, it’s actually no hats. But it means anything on the head. I realized, of course, that I had a fairly good reason to break the rule. Now I can be a lot of things, including a hypocrite sometimes I suppose, however, I try not to be a hypocrite whenever possible. Like the “no drinking except water rule,” do you have any idea how many mornings I could go for another cup of coffee? But don’t. Since the kids can’t drink juice or soda or coffee or whatever, neither do I. Still, I was thinking that the kids would rather I wear a scarf wrapped around my baldness than deal with the uncomfortable situation of my egg head in their face at the front of the room.
Despite all of these dilemmas, early one morning I found myself getting ready for work. I dressed nicely and brightly, including a floral printed scarf. I carefully applied makeup and used a dark shadow to simulate a hint of eyebrows. I packed lunch and snacks that would keep my energy up. And off I went.
While walking from the administration building, where I had signed in and picked up my mail, to my building I found myself breaking out in a cold sweat. We’re talking all of fifty yards. I shuffled along at the pace of someone moving from breakfast to bingo in a convalescent hospital. One of the VP’s swung by me in a security (golf) cart.
Want a ride to your building?
I glanced with real desire at the other side of his bench seat.
No thanks. Gotta get my exercise to get my strength back.
He smiled and asked if I was sure and sure I was sure and as he drove off the wimpy half of me was screaming inside Come back, come back…….
For my classes that day I suspended work on whatever the substitute teacher had been in the middle of doing. I told my students that since I had missed the first days of school, and since they were all familiar with each other, I wasn’t going to make them all do introductions and bonding activities all over again. Instead, I would let them get to know me. They could ask all the questions that day. A little role reversal. I told them they could ask me anything they wanted. Hesitant at first, the students soon warmed up. My classes flew by and this turned out to be a great ice breaker. Lots of the questions were to be expected:
How long have you been teaching?
Are you married?
Do you have kids? How many? How old are they?
Are you a hard grader? (This is relative to the fact that the long term sub had given A’s to 95% of the class first quarter)
Some got brave:
Is it true you had cancer?
Are you better?
This activity meandered into places I had not intended. Once the kids discovered that I was completely comfortable talking about my illness, they got braver and started asking questions that had been on their minds for quite awhile, long before a teacher’s cancer had entered their lives. Some of them had family members that had gone through or were going through cancer. These students were leery of asking those relatives questions as they were afraid of upsetting a loved one. Me? I had not only given them a green light, I had pushed them into the street.
What is chemotherapy? How is it different than radiation?
Why do people get sick from chemotherapy?
By the last class of the day, I felt right at home again in the classroom. I was sitting in a chair at the front of the room by that point (I had only lasted standing on my feet for half of the first class). This last class was an exceptionally bright group of kids and for the first time that day, one of the students felt brave enough to ask the ten dollar question:
What kind of cancer did you have?
I had mixed feelings about using the breast word with a large group of teenagers. In any other case scenario, the male students would undoubtedly say or do something inappropriate. But I took a deep breath and just went for it.
I had breast cancer.
How did you find out? Was it a mammogram?
Actually no. I found the lump myself five months after my last mammogram. Ladies, that’s an important lesson. Remember to do your monthly self exam.
Out of the corner of my eye, a hand was being raised in the front row, just to my right. When I turned my attention to the student who I thought had a question, a curious sight. The girl did have her hand raised in the air, but her eyes were not meeting mine. They were reflective of the activity she was engaged in. You see, her other hand was busy feeling herself up. Evidently, my mention of self breast exam had reminded her that she had been remiss of late. Spontaneously, apparently without much thought, she had embarked on a little impromptu breast exploration. As she was facing me and her back was to the rest of the class, no one else had noticed. I think I had to shut my mouth which was hanging open.
I didn’t even know her name yet. I definitely didn’t know her well enough to know if she could handle a little gas from me on what she was doing.
I pointed to another hand raised in the back.
Class, and life, went on.
It's hard to know what to say to that one! Except wow! You sound like a great teacher!
Wow, Pseudo. Powerful stuff. Thank you for sharing.
wow. you are something else. My new hero.
I think it's par for the course for someone my age.
I had my six month oncology appointment yesterday. Three elderly women were waiting with me. All three were in wheel chairs and my heart went out to them and how weak they were.
HAHA about that girl. She sounds like something else.
But wow, what a great story. I can't even imagine the strength you have.
Thanks for thinking of me and sharing the website. Off to check it out right now :)
Just found your blog like you found mine; I love finding new and interesting writers. Thanks!
This post is great. What a wonderful idea to turn over an uncomfortable day for both you and your students into a Q & A session, especially when you were so open in your answers. I'm sure they will never forget this experience, ever. That's what I love and admire about teachers; always thinking, always fresh.
Yey (standing ovation)! Very brave, and turning a difficult situation into one of potential and growth is absolutely why we love our best teachers - and you are clearly one of them.
Your students will never forget you. You are the brave teacher that let them know that teachers are people, too (as opposed to the really mean robot that gets a preverse pleasure from assigning really long essays).
You are also one a hell of a writer.
Outstanding story. You respected your students in a way that must have shocked them... a life-changing event maybe for one or two. Students remember how you treated them, not what you taught them. The teacher gets an A++.
Incredible. Beautiful story. My fingers are failing me as I try to type how cool I think you were in the classroom, and how inspiring you were and are to those kids. Wow.
Thanks for sharing this.
Ah shucks. You all are being too nice. I need to write a post about one of my off days now.
It all started with me remembering the girl...
What a great teacher you are to allow them to be comfortable enough to ask all the questions.. (the self exam moment was pretty funny)
Mcewen - I thought so too. I strated out just going for the funny part where the girl feeled herself up in class.
beautiful post, thanks for sharing...how brave and strong are those who go thru the treatments, i remain in awe of you and all the others
and what an amazing impact you had on all those students, they will remember that class for the rest of their lives
This was a beautiful post. What a great teacher you are...your students are so lucky to have you. Thank you for sharing what you have been through...it takes a lot of courage to be so honest. You really taught your students many lessons that day...ones they will never forget.
What a great post. I hate going to my oncologists office (melanoma). It is so depressing and everyone looks so weak. Your post gave me a different perspective. A more hopeful perspective. I am sure I will think of it next time I'm there.
Boy you handled that beautifully...
You are a brave and strong lady!
That's all I got.
You are being featured on Five Star Friday:
You are an inspiration! Thanks for stopping by my blog. I must apologize for my photography blog. I haven't updated it in months... mostly because I've been working on my photography business website which I hope to have up soon so I've been lazy and just added my latest work to my regular blog. :) Keep up the good work. It's nice to meet you.
Thanks for sharing, maybe someone could lean on that story in a time when they need it. You are a strong person.
Thanks everyone. I'm going to write a post about a day when I was crappy at teaching to balance it all out ; -)
What an amazing post. I don't think I've met any more courageous people than the women around me (increasingly more numerous, unfortunately) who have conquered/are conquering breast cancer. Thank you for sharing this lovely piece of writing - I look forward to reading more of your posts! Bookmarking you now...
And thank you for visiting my blog! Hope to see you again soon...
Take care and be well...
Pseudo, I'm going to join the others and say that this was awesome and absolutely inspiring. It brought tears to my eyes. The story was so powerful. But I also want to say that the way you put the words to paper or uhhh...computer was lovely. You're an incredible writer.
PS. And you apparently know how to keep your cool too....self breast exam in class....your Q&A must have transported her to her own little world. LOL
You are a great writer and that just floored and moved me. You seem like an incredibly strong woman. I know people say we often rise to the occasion in adversity, but I doubt I would do as well as you. Very inspiring to remember your daily strength as I deal with much smaller, more insignificant problems. Those kids are lucky to have you as a teacher.
I met a lot of inspiring people in the chemo and radiatin treatment rooms. The ones who really made an impressoin on me were the elderly who handled it all with such grace.
Wow. In so many ways, you are truly inspirational. I can not wait to get to "know" you better through your blog.
What an inspiration you are to your students, and to me. And thanks for reminding me about my breast exam.
I'm not going to say it was inspiring, we already know that, I'm not going to say 'brilliant post', we know that too, what I will say is 'honesty'. Thank you for being so honest. Compelling reading.
Your first featured post gave me chills. Now I'm crying.
I pray those children know what a precious gift they were given when they got you as their teacher.
You are an inspiration.
Happy SITS day.
How have I missed this blog until now?! You are a great voice and I lament that I haven't found you until today! I am awed by your physical strength, iron will, and emotional courage. To open yourself up to a room full of teenagers is not an easy thing on your strongest day, but you trusted them enough to do so in one of your weakest moments. Clearly, you're in the right profession. I'm looking forward to sticking around and getting to know you - asking my own questions! Like - are you better? Do you still teach? I'm off to research these for myself!
Another GREAT post. Thank you so much for sharing this story.
You handled that well! Congrats on your SITS day! :)
You are a remarkable person! Thank you for sharing this story with us.
Wow, You are so amazing and thanks for your honesty, your students are lucky to have you!!!
I'd love to sit in your class for a couple of days. I'm sure there is a lot I could learn about teaching.
How very brave of you to openly discuss your cancer with your students. That's awesome! Knowing that someone was paying attention enought to check herself makes it worth it! Kudos:0)
What an amazing story. I pray for your continued good health.
Stopping by from SITS.
What an inspiring story. I hope that you're feeling stronger. I bet your students learned as much that day as any other.
As a survivor, I felt that leaving the chemo room for my very last time was one of the greatest, scariest, saddest, and bestest (had to keep up with the est thing I had going) moments in my life. To walk into a classroom while going through treatment must have been so incredibly hard. Your breast exam girl must have been in the GT class. Thanks for inspiring me to "maybe" share my story in a furture blog.
Tears are streaming down my face. Beautiful post.
Tears are streaming down my face. Beautiful post.
What a brave & inspirational post. Thank you for sharing with us.
Visiting from SITS. Wow! Hoping that 5 months from the original date of this post that you continue to improve and are well on the way to being your energetic self. You go girl!
This post really was an exercise in inspiration - thank you.
Wow, what a cool post. You made me feel like I was there with you. I LOVE that you let them ask questions. I remember before my boys became teens fearing those years and what they would be like, and what their friends would be like too. I have been SO surprised. I love teens- for every moody moment is two or three funny or touching ones that make me smile. I know you made a big difference in their lives by being honest:)
What a personal post. Thanks for sharing it.
Such an inspiring story! What did you end up doing about headgear? I wanna know!
I, too am a teacher and cancer survivor. I found the students to be curious and accepting and talking about my cancer was a real help to many of them.
Wow, what a fantastic teacher you are. brave...you know what...those students, that school..are very lucky to have you
You are an amazing teacher, and an amazing writer.
Wow. You're such a strong person - I don't know if I could have done that. And what thoughtful students you have to ask such personal and caring questions.
Congrats on your SITS day!
wow. Im not sure what else I can say about this one
wow. Im not sure what else to say other than that
Wow - I am completely blown away by my first SITS blog visit! What an amazing writer you are and I feel honored to have this glimps into your life. I can't wait to read more!
Wow! That is awesome that you were willing to open up to all of them and let them learn from your life experiences.
About halfway through I was reading that through tears. You are such an inspiration to all of us, and I'm sure the kids in your classroom.
I wish more adults would allow kids a glimpse into the real world...even if it's not always pretty.
Wow. You are a powerful writer. (and amusing! I can't believe that girl!!!)
My first time here, stopping from SITS, but I'll be back!!
Now I'm all teary. What a wonderful example for all of your students!
WOW! What a story!
Wow, very raw, but very real. I think too many teachers would have gone to an avoidance of the subject but KUDOS to you for being open with it and airing it out. You probably made a huge impact on someone in that class who will be facing the same thing at some point in their future. I pray that your recovery is going well!
I hope my kids are lucky enough to get a teacher just like you.
Winks & Smiles,
You. Are. Amazing.
Wow, that post took my breath away.
Oh my gosh, what an amazing story. I hope you have beaten cancer for good. You will be in my prayers. I wish my kids had you for a teacher!
Visiting from SITS. An amazing story, and I'm glad you were so open with your students. My most influential high school teachers were the ones who were open with me.
You are an inspiration. I think it is incredible that you can be so open about your experiences and illness. Especially with teenagers. I am certain that you were able to help someone.
Thank you for that. What an inspiration- to your students and us. So glad you're a survivor!
You are an excellent story teller now aren't you?? Riveting, truly.
Thanks for being so raw and real. Amazing.
Wow-what a powerful post!
The number of students you helped that day....WOW!
You are an amazing person!
What an amazing story. Thanks for sharing it.
And, I hope you are continuing to kick cancer's ass!
Wow. What a great story.
as a nurse and a parent, I applaud you for being brave enough to give your kids the green light to talk to you- I am sure you made a difference in more than one of those kids lives that day...
Wow. You are amazing!
Happy SITS day...
wow what an amazing blog post...
you seem like a truly amazing person and I just want to thank you for sharing that with us....what an inspiration
wow! you must be a very strong person! and it sounds like you are a really great teacher too.
I am going to start following you on Blogger. You are inspiring!
I am going to start following you on Blogger. You are inspiring!
What a gift you gave them to ask the questions burning in their minds. I am sure that it will have made life long memories and inspiration for any of them (or close friends or family members) who experience cancer first hand.
One of my favorite SITS features yet!!
Don't class and life always go on? But you made such a difference to that girl and that class! Way to go!
You go girl...so strong to get back into the swing of things! I can't imagine how tired you were & then having to teach a bunch of teenagers...whew! You are an inspiration. That is hilarious about the girl giving herself an exam right then & their...i might have cracked up laughing.
You sound like a great teacher.
My step mother went through breast cancer - I've seen how hard it can be on someone.
I hope you get and stay healthy.
You're so brave! I love it! Kids respond so well to that kind of transparency...good for you for letting them in!
Came over from SITS. I applaud you for the courage to be 'real' with your students and I congratulate you on your strength and survival.
Thanks for sharing your story.
From SITS, with love and I am inspired by your story. You have tremendous fortitude - hope all is well.
Thank you for sharing your beautiful story. You were so real with your students, and I think that is really what people need these days, especially young adults. They need to know that we can be open and candid with them so their questions can be answered. You are doing an amazing job.
Wow, thanks for sharing such a personal journey with all of us in bloggy land. Made cry. Glad you are doing well.....I too believe that answering kids with honesty and integrity is important. Again, thank you.
Your writing is inspiring and beautiful. Very heartfelt and totally honest. I love it. I admire your courage to head back to work when it would have been easier to stay home. You are truly brave.
That was the best post I have ever read ... Cancer reaches all of us and I'm sorry for what you went through ... Thank you for sharing this very intimate part of your life and I especially love that the girl in your class gave herself a mini breast exam as I felt like doing one myself after you mentioned it ...
I look forward to following this blog ... Thanks again!
I had cancer, too. I was a teenager, missed the first quarter of my junior year. You handled the transition back to school so much better than I did! Wish you had been my teacher.
(visiting from SITS)
I'm visiting through SITS. Thank you so much for sharing your story. My daughter went through a breast cancer scare a little over a year ago. The took a small chunk out of her breast but she is cancer free.
I love your honesty, not just with the blogging world but with your students as well, what a great way to reach them and relieve some of the tension. You're one tough lady too. It was a pleasure reading this.
It's wonderful that you answered their questions.
Thanks for sharing a great personal post...
I admire you completely and this story was written so beautifully. I went through this with my mom 3 years ago and she's cancer free. I'm glad you're a survivor as well!
Happy SITS day! What a pleasure to find your blog.
A very well written and inspiring post. Thank you for sharing yourself and your experience with others.
Pretty awesome and brave of you to get it all out on the table and avoid any rumors or speculation that would undoubtedly have occurred.
Glad everything worked out & you had very understanding students. The self-exam in class was a real hoot!
ok the self examination things was too funny!!
great to hear a teacher willing to be real with her kids!
again happy SITS day
So out of curiosity, have you won a Golden Apple yet?
What a wonderful heartful post (with a little comic relief at the end).
I'm off to ask my husband for a breast exam now!
What a powerful post. You are an incrediblay courageous person and I admire the way you used your trial to touch the lives of your students.
WOW, such an amazing story!!! You're an incredible lady, you know that?!
I am so glad you linked to this because it was before I met you and I didn't really know the whole story. What a gift you gave those students that day to allow them to ask you those questions.
You are remarkable. To sit and give those kids your attention and treat them like adults in giving them the chance to ask any question - that was remarkable. And very brave.
That was great! You are an amazing woman.
Oh, and are you a hard grader? ;-)
Glad you are here to share your story, and to remind us all of life's fragility, and our own inner strength and courage.
Wow. Just wow. Thanks for sharing this.
To share so openly and humbly is amazing. Thank you.
What an amazing post. You are a really good writer.
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