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School Desk Blog: Reflections of a Breast Cancer Survivor

Reflections of a Breast Cancer Survivor

In February of 2009, I was a 35-year-old high school principal with two small children of my own. I loved working. I enjoyed spending time with students and staff, going to games and chaperoning dances. Like many educators, I was not in the practice of taking the time to get regular health check-ups, but when I found a lump in my breast, I knew I’d better get it checked out. I was scared, but hopeful. I had no idea what lie ahead.  

When the doctors told me I had breast cancer, I was terrified. At first, I couldn’t get my mind around it—around the idea that I might not be able to see my kids grow up. They told me I would need to undergo surgery, followed by chemotherapy. I nodded dumbly.

It is incredible the way modern medicine can help the body heal, but as I began treatment, I had no idea how much energy it would take to wrestle my body back from cancer. I was utterly exhausted. I spent most of my time in bed or on the couch. I hated not having the energy to do fun things with my family or take part in school activities, and I promised myself that, given the opportunity, I’d take better care of myself and make the most of my time with my family and with students.  

Happily, I got that opportunity! For a while, I was totally motivated to take better care of myself and keep my priorities straight. But it wasn’t long after my hair grew back that my motivation and focus began to wane. At school, I let paperwork take precedence over spending time with students and I let work duties get in the way of caring for myself and spending time with my family. Like many who work in schools, I fell into the trap of trying to meet the endless needs of my students, and I felt selfish if I spent time taking care of myself when I could be doing more for kids. 

For better or for worse, life gave me another opportunity to learn the importance of taking care of myself. In 2011, I was diagnosed with breast cancer again. Since it was my second bout, my doctor prescribed an intense course of treatment: surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation. My first experience with cancer had been so painful and exhausting, I briefly considered not doing any treatment the second time—I didn’t think I could get through it. However, my love for my family, friends, and students and for my work as an educator gave me the strength I needed to go through treatment again.

It may seem strange, but I’m grateful for the lessons cancer has taught me. I’ve learned that if I really care about my family, friends, and the students I serve, I must take care of myself. When I sacrifice time exercising so I can work a little longer, I don’t just cheat myself out of the exercise I need to be healthy and relieve stress, I end up taking my stress home and cheating my family out of having me at my best. Not only that, if I allow stress to build, I diminish my ability to stay healthy and end up missing more work. Everyone loses! 

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which is not just about reminding women to do self-exams. This is the perfect time to reflect on how we prioritize the things we value most, like time with loved ones, and how we take care of ourselves. Those of us who have the privilege of working in schools or in other service industries are often prone to putting others’ needs before our own. While this is honorable, it can actually be counterproductive. We must find time to take care of ourselves. If we don’t, the people we’re actually trying to serve lose out and so do we.