May 2013 was an exciting time for my husband and me. We were in the process of buying our first house and thinking about starting a family. But, when a visit to the doctor to investigate pain in my right knee revealed a large mass, our excitement was quickly replaced with concern. After a series of tests, I was diagnosed with metastatic synovial sarcoma, a soft tissue cancer that had spread to my lungs. We were floored. I had been healthy my entire life and had no other symptoms, but there I was, diagnosed at the age of 28.
My exceptional oncologist, James Butrynski, MD, scheduled me for radiation therapy, chemotherapy, and eventually surgery. When my husband and I expressed concern about how this might affect our plan to have children, we were quickly put in touch with Brigham and Women’s Center for Infertility and Reproductive Surgery for a crash-course in In Vitro Fertilization (IVF).
Meanwhile, my husband and I still had to work. It was my first year teaching art to 500 students at Brophy Elementary School in Framingham, and my diagnosis came with four weeks left of school. The end of the school year is chaotic on its own, but add first-time home-buyer jitters, a rare cancer diagnosis, and a plethora of doctors’ appointments to the mix, and you can imagine my state of mind. Fortunately, I was supported by my colleagues, friends, and family.
At the end of the school year, I sent an email to my colleagues with the short version of my treatment and what I had been going through, but we did not say anything to students and families, except that I was out sick. I then went on medical leave in September 2013.
When the new year started, many of the students – and eventually their families – asked what happened to me, and wanted to know more.
I am a firm believer in being honest with people, particularly children. So, in October, with the support of my principal and my wonderful psychologist at Dana-Farber, Karen Fasciano, PsyD, I wrote a letter to the students and their families telling them about my diagnosis. I told them I had lost my hair over the summer because of my medicine, and I included a picture of what I looked like as it started growing back. I also told them about my new house and included pictures of my new dog.
The week after I sent the letter home, I visited the school. I spent my time outside at recess so students could ask questions. The students were so happy to see me; I felt like a celebrity walking down the hall! Some students asked tough questions like, “Are you going to die?” Others wanted to tell me about people in their lives with cancer. Some told me they were sad for me and admitted they had cried when they read my letter. The older students in particular wanted to know more about the details of cancer: how I got it, how it works, and why I lost my hair. I tried to answer their questions as honestly and easily as I could, using the conversation as a “teachable moment,” and explained how cancer works on a cellular level, connecting to their own biology studies. Mostly, they all wanted to know when I was coming back to teach art again. And eventually, all conversations devolved into talking about my new dog.
Since then, I have been back to school several times and the kids are always excited to see me. Sometimes they have more questions about cancer, but mostly they just keep asking when I’m coming back. Fortunately, my doctors and I are working on a plan to help me return to school in September.
I have received so much help and support from my family, friends, colleagues, and medical professionals this year, and I can’t wait to pay that kindness forward to my students. Teaching is a taxing job, both physically and emotionally, but I really believe schools are the best place to remember what living is all about.