When their instructors battle breast cancer, students share the struggle

MCTOctober 13, 2007 

— Lyn Hamilton told her 11-year-old son of her breast-cancer diagnosis on a Friday as she drove him home from school. Fearing her own reaction, she didn't want to look him in the eyes.

Then, after a weekend spent searching for the right words, she stared straight out at her 110 other "children" as she broke the news to her seventh-grade science students at Lexington Middle School. In some ways, it was more painful than telling her son. She couldn't reach out and hug every one of those students when she was through.

But like other teachers who have experienced this, Hamilton found the anguish of that revelation was more than balanced by months of incredible support from students, parents and the school community. There's a different dynamic for teachers with cancer, with a few extra negatives and a whole bunch of positives.

"I was overwhelmed by cards and flowers," said Hamilton, 45. "They were so supportive - my kids, my kids' parents, the other teachers. My faith, my friends and my family just surrounded me."

There's no lesson plan for teachers dealing with breast cancer. But most teachers can find someone at their school who has gone through the highs and lows. At Lexington Middle, five teachers have dealt with breast-cancer diagnoses in the past five years.

Advice from others doesn't make breaking the news to students any easier.

"I labored on the letter I sent home to the parents, and I prayed over what I would say," said Hamilton, who was diagnosed last February. "Cancer to these kids is equivalent to death. They don't understand about the advances."

She gathered her students in the science lab to tell them. She said the cancer had begun to spread but her doctors thought it was contained.

Then she told them Wednesday would be her last day with them for a while and she would have surgery the following Monday.

"You could have heard a pin drop," Hamilton said. "And you never can hear a pin drop in a room full of adolescents."

Soon the science teacher in her took over. She drew on the blackboard to show the location of the cancer and cut out a piece of paper to show the size of the 1.5-centimeter tumor.

She answered students' questions about how cancer cells attack the body, how chemotherapy attacks those cancer cells and also attacks healthy fast-growing cells such as hair and skin.

"It was important to me to have a positive attitude. This was going to rock their world."

Being more concerned about the students than themselves is standard procedure for teachers in Hamilton's position. Her teacher friends nearly had to push her out the school's doors.

Tanya Hudson, a Lexington Middle School teacher and breast-cancer survivor, insisted Hamilton stay away from school during her chemo.

"I told her to take care of herself first," said Hudson, 56, who taught English for 32 years and retired last year. Hudson had taken the opposite course and found it exhausting.

Hudson was diagnosed in the summer of 2005. Soon after the school year began, she told her new students she would be missing some time because of breast-cancer treatment.

"I don't remember it being difficult," Hudson said. "You're so caught up in the whole journey. It was sort of a whirlwind."

Hudson kept teaching through her chemo treatment. She lined up a substitute to fill in on the days she missed and didn't feel her students were shortchanged.

While she didn't recommend that course to Hamilton, Hudson noted one positive to showing up at school as often as possible. "The kids were so compassionate, so kind."

The teachers were, too. Hudson still gets choked up remembering how Hamilton sent her a card every day until she finished chemo. That was three years before Hamilton was diagnosed.

Lee McDonald was selected teacher of the year at Hand Middle School last year. During an interview with the district teacher of the year committee, she was asked what was the hardest thing she ever had done as a teacher. She didn't hesitate.

"I told them it was telling my students I had breast cancer," McDonald said. "And then I started crying in the interview."

McDonald, 51, always had told her students at the start of the year: "Don't make your personal issues my problem. Leave your baggage at the door."

Then two years ago, she had to violate her own rule. She opened up and told her students her doctor suspected she had breast cancer, and she apologized for being short with them while she was awaiting test results.

That night she got good news: The test results showed no cancer. She told the kids the next day, and they celebrated together.

A few weeks later, her doctor told her the original test result was wrong. She did have cancer.

She put off telling the students for nearly a month, until she had her treatment planned and a full-time substitute lined up.

She gathered her students in the lunch room and handed out a letter for them to take home.

"In this letter, I tell your parents I have breast cancer," McDonald told them. "The doctors missed it."

The young faces whipped up; frightened looks washed over her.

"It probably was harder telling them" than her own children, then ages 16 and 21, "because I had all of those eyes looking back at me."

She tried to break some of the tension with humor.

"I'm not going to die," she told them. "I'm going to be back. You'll still have to serve your lunch detentions."

She worked around surgeries. At least one of her students kept track of the absences and at the end of the year told her she was gone 54.5 days.

She missed three more weeks the next year for follow-up surgery. All along, her students were her cheerleaders.

"They're very protective," McDonald said. "It's funny how they're protective. Sometimes, they fight over who's going to help.

"Adults want to rush you into survivor mode. Sometimes they're scared to bring it up. Kids make everything so real: `That's my teacher. She had cancer, and now she's back.'"

The students' feelings about her treatment worked their way into journals they kept in language arts class. They discussed fears, anxieties and family members with cancer.

"I hope if I gave them a lesson it was that you only have a short period of time, so don't waste it."

Rachel Moore, who teaches at Pleasant Hill Elementary, was at Palmetto Health Baptist when she heard The State newspaper was putting together a story on teachers dealing with breast cancer. She e-mailed from her hospital room the day after her mastectomy.

"I hope to return to teaching as soon as possible - after my recovery," Moore wrote. "I do not know yet if chemotherapy will be involved but know that some of my concerns about chemo are how the results of it could be very frightening for children to witness."

Teachers who stay in school through chemo often find the students are more curious than scared. Sally Taylor, another of the Lexington Middle School cancer survivors, had chemo treatments every two weeks on Thursdays. She would miss three school days and return on Tuesdays.

The students could sense that she felt lousy when she came back, and they turned down the teen craziness a notch. "By the time I got ready to do chemo again, they were regular teenagers again," said Taylor, 49.

Taylor also was diagnosed in the summer and skipped the opening of school while getting treatment. The next year, she said, "I was surprised how excited I was to be there the first day of school. I had missed it.

"You don't realize until you have something like this happen that (the students and faculty) are your second family."

For Hamilton, the school family was even larger. Students who never were in her class got to know her as a sponsor of the school's Fellowship of Christian Athletes and through the annual science club trip to the Florida Keys.

The day after she told her seventh-graders of her diagnosis, a large group of high-school seniors who had gone on the Florida trip years before showed up at her classroom with cards and flowers.

She never felt more connected to the school than the three months she was away. Teachers, students and parents sent cards and e-mails and brought meals to her home.

Christy Fins, whose son Josh was in Hamilton's class last year, remembered him coming home the day of the announcement telling her about it.

"He was really sad," Fins said. "He said, `Mom, we've got to do something for her. We've got to do something for her.'"

"It was a shocker," Josh said. "We were all happy (as the students gathered in the science lab). When she told us the mood got sort of mopey."

Josh took Hamilton a plant on the day before she left the classroom. The Fins family took a couple of meals by Hamilton's home and kept in touch nearly daily through her treatment.

Chemo wiped out Hamilton's seemingly boundless energy. She had pledged to return to the classroom by the end of the year, but only got back to give her students a boost during the days of PACT testing.

In June, she endured a strong dose of chemo on a Monday and left for the 10-day Florida trip on the following Thursday. It was the 14th year of the trip, and she felt the kids needed her experience.

The trip was eventful, as the group dealt with a passing tropical storm and a tornado warning. "We made three trips to the hospital, but none was for me," Hamilton said.

She knew her presence would back the message she wanted to stress the day she announced her diagnosis: Cancer isn't a death sentence.

"You've got to continue to live your life, continue with the passions you have."

To further prove her point, Hamilton is planning the 15th trip to the Keys in the summer of 2008 while also considering a change in the itinerary the next year.

"I'm thinking about the coast of Maine, or maybe Alaska."

___

© 2007, The State (Columbia, S.C.).

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