Lissette, diagnosed at 32
I’d been living in California for a few years. I had a good job as a 5th grade teacher and liked the school where I taught. Though happy with my job, I was 32 years old and began thinking that it might be time to move back to the East Coast and put down roots near my family. While I started to ponder what my life would be like if I moved back to New Jersey, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.
It was in the middle of the school year when I found a lump in my breast. Initially, I wasn’t overly concerned. I had a history of cysts in my breast dating back to when I was 16 years old. In fact, I had my first mammogram at 16 to investigate a mass. At 20 years of age, I found another lump and again when I was 22. Both of the later incidents resulted in my doctors telling me to stop drinking caffeine and alcohol, which I did. When I found a lump at 32, I assumed it was another cyst and called my gynecologist to have it looked at.
My gynecologist told me that the current mass was less than one centimeter and it would go away. But, this time my experience was different than before. I had been experiencing shooting pains up my arm and down my neck. Six months later, I was still feeling pain. I was in a parent-teacher conference and a pain shot through me. The parent asked me if I was alright, and I told her I had this pain and had felt a mass in my breast that had not gone away; in fact, it felt like it may have gotten bigger. She encouraged me to go back to the doctor and even suggested getting the mass removed, since it didn’t seem like it belonged there anyway.
I made another appointment with my gynecologist and surgery was scheduled to remove the mass, which we still thought was a cyst. Before the surgery, the doctor decided to recheck my medical records and saw the history of unexplained masses. The doctor wanted me to have another mammogram, which led to an ultrasound and biopsy. A week later, before my scheduled surgery, I got a call telling me I had stage 3, triple negative invasive ductal carcinoma in my left breast. The call from the surgeon came on a Friday night, while I was out shopping with a girlfriend. I wasn’t able to obtain additional information until Monday, and I was grateful to have not been alone when I found out.
I was getting closer to the end of the school term, and I had to make some big decisions. I no longer could move back East because I had my health insurance through my job. I knew my family would find a way to help me and be with me, and I felt very fortunate that I’d established myself enough on the West Coast to have friends to help me too. I started treatment before the end of the school year. The school administration, my fellow teachers and my student’s parents were very supportive. Together, we decided to tell the students I had cancer. They were old enough to understand more than that I was sick and they were very likely to see me not feeling my best. The day I told my class, all of the other teachers told their classes as well. We had the support of the school’s crisis counselor, who was available to the students if they felt confused or scared, had questions or simply wanted to talk. We didn’t want any of the younger siblings of my students (it’s a very small school) to have misinformation or to be scared. Once they knew, my students were amazing.
Since I technically had summers off, much of my main treatment took place then. I had my mastectomy, and my sister, also a teacher, flew out with my 15-year-old niece to care for me and help me recuperate. I did, however, still need to undergo chemotherapy and radiation during the next school year. The start of the new school year meant a classroom full of new students and new parents that did not know I had breast cancer. They certainly didn’t know I was actively going through treatment. This could have been a challenge since there were days when I wasn’t going to be feeling well due to my treatment schedule. Again, I was fortunate that the school and the new parents were very supportive. Together with the crisis counselor’s support, I told another term’s students.
If I did need to interrupt my school day for treatment, the school had the crisis counselor come to my class and be with my kids. Not only the school, but the parents and kids too, rallied behind me on this leg of my journey. The parents saw my dedication to my job, their kids and the amount of energy I was willing to give to my class even when I wasn’t feeling my best. At times, when a student would say they didn’t feel like going to school today or they would complain of a small headache and want to stay home, a parent would say “If Ms. Averhoff can be in class ready to teach you while she is fighting cancer, you can not only go to class, but you can give her your all today.”
Every day I hope that even though I might have been scared, tired or not feeling well, that I gave my best efforts to the kids of my 5th grade classes during that time. I love teaching and am so happy that I continue to teach 5th grade in the very same classroom.