Color this post Pink: A Midlife Cancer Survivor Remembers Her First Day Back at Work

It’s Just Another Hill, Baby

by  Pseudonymous Teacher  of Phhhst

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 shit.  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 surfing 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.

  • http://ineversignedupforthis.typepad.com/ darryle

    What a beautiful story–and what a beautiful way you found as a teacher to both teach and learn. I had breast cancer while my two children were aged 6 and 10–and I only wish they both had teachers as open and inspiring as you–instead of the teacher who told my 10 year old daughter that her mom would certainly die–which my daughter was too terrified to bring home and tell me. Hope you are doing well now–and thanks for sharing this experience.

  • http://phhhst.blogspot.com/ phhhst

    Thank-you Cecilia. Yes, it sure can be the elephant in the room. But I’ve me so so many women who’ve been afflected, it is very prevalent.

  • http://www.sasstown.com Cecilia

    Thank you for you realistic description of a day in the life of someone working through a personal battle with cancer. I love that you let the students talk about “the elephant in the room.” Cancer is so prevalent in our era that these students will have some real insight when it touches their lives in some way.

  • http://www.rebelliousthoughtsofawoman.com Laura

    Thanks for your classroom presence–and your blogging presence. Talking about things openly can only but help us all.

    Kids. The things they do. Well, at least it was a self-exam, I had a boy last year lean over and grab a girl’s breast. And wouldn’t you know it, I just happened to look up from grading a very far from A paper to catch the act.

    No coffee?! I blatantly ignore that rule, but I drink my coffee in a cup from the Steinbeck Museum, so I think it’s okay.

    • http://phhhst.blogspot.com/ phhhst

      Oh my. There are days like that, aren’t there?

  • http://vintagemommy.com Vintage Mommy

    I have a friend who teaches 6th grade who has been fighting ovarian cancer for 5+ years. She has found that working is the best way for her to manage her anxiety, not to mention the financial benefits – long and short-term.

    She just got news that she has to start yet another round of a new chemo . . .

    Thanks for your story.

    • http://phhhst.blogspot.com/ phhhst

      I admire your friend and her courage. As much as I thought I wasn’t up to working, it really did help once I was back at it.

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