Teaching with Cancer: Who to Tell?

” I had hundreds of worries about telling them.  I didn’t want them frightened.  I didn’t want them to wear pink and do fund-raisers for me.  I didn’t want them thinking about my breasts.  I didn’t want them to cry.  I didn’t want to cry in front of them. . .  I didn’t want anything to change for them.”

My breast cancer diagnosis was early and my prognosis excellent.  My administrators and colleagues were supportive from the beginning.  Still, there is so much that is hard, and hard to decide, when you’re a teacher with cancer.

First, who do you tell, and when?

I’m probably not the only teacher who got the diagnosis over the phone, while at school. It was the last five minutes of my lunch break, and I was checking my mail in the teacher workroom when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket.

“Do you have a few minutes to talk?” my doctor asked.  My heart raced to my throat.  I had 4 minutes before I had to pick up my students from the lunch room. I sat down, and my doctor started talking.  I can’t remember much of what she said after, “you have breast cancer,” but the minutes flew.  I looked up at the clock. The doctor was still talking, but it was time to pick up my class.  I put my cell phone to my chest, walked into the office, interrupted a conversation, and asked an administrator to go pick up my class.  But it didn’t happen that calmly.

“Hang on,” I told the doctor, “I’m at school.  I have to get someone — ” And the phone was on my chest.  I was walking, and trying not to cry, and looking for someone to help.  There were kids, staff, and parents all over the place.

“I need someone to get my class,” I yelled desperately into a conversation my administrator was having with the secretary.

“Why?” she asked instinctively.

“It’s my doctor.  It’s an emergency.  I have to finish talking to her.”

And just like that, the hard business of telling people had begun.

*****

The next day, I was in a team meeting with several agenda items to discuss in a short period of time. Three times, I had to step out to take calls from various doctors’ offices. After the 3rd call, I was so upset, that I ended up just blurting out to my team that I had cancer, and that was why I had to keep taking these phone calls.  It was a terrible way to tell them.

That night, feeling like the news of  my cancer was about to become the latest water-cooler gossip discussion, I decided to take matters into my own hands.  Luckily, I work in a small school with a small staff.

The next morning, I arrived early.  I went to see the early-arrivers first.  I told each staff person individually my news. I also told them that I had decided not to tell students and parents, at least not yet, and I asked them to keep the information among staff only.   By the time I’d told the last person, that sentence, “I have breast cancer,” had become easier to say, but I was nowhere near ready to tell my students.

*****

Over the next couple months, I had two surgeries and saw countless doctors.  I was absent a lot, and students asked questions, but for a long time, I just gave vague answers.  Meanwhile, I worked out plans to reduce my hours for about 8 weeks while undergoing treatments, and I started thinking about how and what to tell my students.

By this time, I had told so many people, that I fully understood the fear and anxiety caused by the word “cancer.”  By this time, my own fear of the word was under control, but my students were middle-schoolers.  I had hundreds of worries about telling them.  I didn’t want them frightened.  I didn’t want them to wear pink and do fund-raisers for me.  I didn’t want them thinking about my breasts.  I didn’t want them to cry.  I didn’t want to cry in front of them.  I didn’t want them to feel sorry for me, or not be themselves in my class any more.  I didn’t want their education interrupted by my illness.  I didn’t want anything to change for them.

I tried to find answers on-line for what was recommended for teachers with cancer.  Surely, lots have dealt with this, and there must be a “right” and “wrong” way to handle telling, or not telling, children.  But all I found were blogs like this, from teachers who had had to face the same decision.  And they all decided differently!

So I talked to my friend who is a survivor.    She’s not a teacher.  When she was diagnosed, she was in the middle of running for political office in a highly-contested race.  She gave me three great pieces of advice. First, she said, only tell the people who it will benefit you to tell.  In thinking about telling my students, would it help me (not them) to know?  The answer to that question was a resounding, “no.”  Secondly, she advised me not to lie (I kind of knew this, mostly because I’m so bad at it).  Third and most importantly, she advised that if/when I decided to tell, that it would be impossible to take anything back — so start general, and move on to specifics if needed.

I took her advice.  Once my absences had become too frequent to brush off as nothing, I talked to all my classes.  I decided not to use the word “cancer”.  Any way I thought about it, the word would bring about results I did not want.  I had pretty much the same talk with all of my classes.  It went something like this:

I know you all have noticed I’ve been absent a lot.  Some of those absences were for good reasons — like visiting my daughters or going to that conference and bringing you back all those books.  But most of my absences have been because I have something not-so-good going on in my life right now.  I have some personal things I need to deal with that will cause me to be absent even more in the months ahead.   Things are going to be okay, but I’ll have to be absent some more.  I know it’s natural to be curious, but I’m asking you all to respect my privacy.  I’d rather you not play detective and try to figure out what’s going on.  If I feel that I can tell you, I will, but right now, I’m choosing not to, and I’m asking you to respect that.

The students listened, and as far as I could see, they did what I asked.  But as the weeks rolled on, both parents and students started asking questions, not to me directly, but to other staff members.  By then, I had become more comfortable with my diagnosis and treatment plan, and most importantly, I could see the end in sight, with a date circled in red on my calendar.

I decided I could tell the students and parents the truth, mostly because all of my needs had now been met.  I no longer needed to put my own needs first, and there was no longer much danger of all those things I was worried about earlier. The kids wouldn’t be afraid, because I was no longer afraid; they wouldn’t do fund-raisers because I had already funded my treatment; I didn’t really care if they thought about my breasts — all the tests, surgeries, and treatments had cured me of those inhibitions; I might cry and they might too, but I’d been through all that plenty of times, and knew I could handle it.

I knew that once I told my students, I had to tell the parents.  So I wrote a letter first.  I had my boss read it and make suggestions in advance.  Then on the day I decided to tell the kids, I sent this PARENT LETTER.

I gave myself 5 minutes at the end of each class period to tell the students, and 5 minutes for questions.  In every class, my talk went differently.  In one class, I cried before I started talking.  In another class, I cried at something a student said.  In two classes, I smiled and laughed, and there were no tears at all.  I left 5 minutes for questions, and told the students they could ask anything today, but that after today, I wanted to just be their teacher and to talk about reading and writing, not cancer.

 

*****

Like most teachers, I put the needs of my students above my own. That’s not a platitude or a pat on the back, but an instinct and a truth.  I couldn’t tell my students that I had cancer until I was sure I would be okay, because I needed to put myself first, and telling them would require me to tell a huge community of students and their families who, no matter how well-meaning, would have in reality, put a stress on me and my recovery.  Having cancer is like being pregnant: it’s a time in your life to put your own health and well-being first, in all ways. And if that means keeping your private life private, so be it.

I’m glad I waited, and I’m also glad I finally told my students the truth.  Telling them once I was almost well, and sure that I would be well, let me have the joy of celebrating with them the good news that I would be fine, without burdening them with the fear that I wouldn’t be.