Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Cancer Cheerleaders at Work

Georgia Tech Yellow Jacket cheerleaders at a 2...Image via Wikipedia

Years ago, a keynote speaker, retooling a presentation geared to industrial market, adapted his opening day message to our school district: to survive in the business sector ~ and education is big business ~ you need to develop cheerleaders. Compelling and true, enduring in a profession requires a support system, solid friends, respect of peers, collegiality, and much more--cheerleaders. I remember thinking the novelty of the message was so simple that I almost overlooked it. Almost.

What seems like another lifetime since that presentation, the message lingers. Having friends is not always synonymous with having cheerleaders. Real cheerleaders go the extra distance, keeping your spirits buoyant beyond the limits of some friendships. Cheerleaders are friends, family, and people that take support to the next level, and when you can find cheerleaders in your workplace, you just won the lottery. Finding cancer cheerleaders who can motivate, encourage, and "bring it on" for you, providing a stable base and taking you to new heights is another thing.

I am blessed with having several amazing and compelling cheerleaders in my building, and they make a difference in my day ~ every day. The first is my principal, Heather Morningstar. Without her compassionate caring, this year could have been an emotional nightmare, a roller coaster of fear and dread with the revolving door through which I came and went because of surgeries, procedures, tests, and specialists' visits. Heather always made it clear she knew I had to do what was best for me and gave unfaltering encouragement. Always I agonized about what was best for my students, but Heather gave me support without limits, and she gained my undying respect and admiration. If you are dealing with life-and-death issues, if you are calling in all your emotional strength and coping skills and using them to the max, then having Heather on your side is absolutely the best place to be. Having been on the opposite side years ago only makes me value Heather's understanding even more. A great leader always sets and controls the climate of a building, and Heather's support is permanent and pervasive. I cannot thank her enough for helping me through a challenging time with her continued support.

After I spoke with Heather, the first person to whom I turned was a breast cancer survivor, Jennifer Piagesi. We have been friends and colleagues for years, learn and teach in the same small department, and share planning time for the new courses we piloted this year. She keeps me connected, reminds me to take deep breaths, and with her, I never am allowed to take myself too seriously. A good thing indeed, and a daily dose, much needed. Every day Jen offered encouragement, words of wisdom, prayers, and her life stories about how she beat back cancer. When I needed someone just to listen, or needed a one-to-one or virtual hug, she's been there for me. She also did something so special that remembering it still brings blurry eyes. She called her close friend, a religious nun, and began a prayer chain for me. As if that were not enough, she surprised me one day with a bottle of water from the Lourdes spring that she collected with her own hands. It was her last bottle of healing water, a small miracle grown large. I began to apply a dot of water each day to what I thought was the seat of my disease, and when my diagnosis came, it was a life sentence, not a death watch. If anyone doubts the power of prayer or the Miracle of Lourdes, think again. I'm still here.

My close friend and colleague, with whom I team taught a special multimedia interdisciplinary IP Project for 13 years, is my anchor. Jennifer Brinson is my sounding board, my common sense when I run amuck. We have a mother-daughter relationship that works for both of us since her mother and my daughter live a plane flight away. Jen grounds my life, keeping my feet on terra firma. She sends me cancer videos, like the TED Talks, and adds cancer articles to my Beating Back Cancer Diigo feed. And she loves my llamas. Last summer, when I was seriously ill and before I learned to let go of some fields-always-clean quirks, Jen came to the farm and worked the pastures, about 4 acres, because I was too ill to do this for myself. She knows how I obsess about clean pastures, so in the dead heat of the day, she sweated bullets and cleaned the fields. That's what cheerleaders do.

My next workplace support person, part of my PLCN, Professional Learning Cancer Network, was unexpected, proving that you really never know the impact you make when you speak. I was coming out of the cancer closet and speaking to our faculty. They knew something was wrong; I was out of school too frequently to be sans illness of some sort. As I spoke, I choked, but regained composure to inform my family of 41 years that I had a disease. I remember saying that I was so lucky, because my disease, although not curable, was slow growing and would not kill me. I would live and die with my disease. I mentioned the more rapid growing form of Non-Hodgkins Follicular Lymphoma that was curable but could kill by the time it was detected. Long story to get to the point. I did not know that in my audience, Mru Govande's mother had just died of the rapid form of NHL. She and I met in a random walk through the hall during a prep period and spoke. She told me her mother's story. We cried together, which for me was cleansing, because I almost cannot cry. And now I have another cheerleader, someone who understands all too painfully how lucky I have been, and she supports me. We share stories, and this summer, I am taking her Cooking from India summer course at her home. Although we were never very close, cancer brought us together, and now we are cheerleaders for each other.

My next cancer cheerleader also arose from an unexpected place, the mother of one of my students. She was diagnosed with leukemia a few years ago, and volunteers actively in the local Lymphoma and Leukemia Society. It was from her that I received a wealth of resources and an invitation to walk with her team, the L&L Happiness Club, for the Light the Night Walk on Saturday, October 16, 2010, at Northampton College. She also invited me today to a Lymphoma and Leukemia Society dinner and presentation from 6-8 PM by Dr. Tlemcani called "NHL: Understanding Your Disease and Treatment Options". The program's target audience is patients, family members and friends. It will discuss information about making an accurate diagnosis, NHL treatment options, emerging treatments, and the role of clinical trials. A patient panel will also discuss coping with the different types of NHL. Were it not for her, I would not be moving forward so quickly with finding local resources. Having her daughter in class was another daily joy, a silent support that really helped.

Last but not least, my final in-house cheerleader is anonymous but synonymous with compassionate caring because she has

(SEH-khel) n. Good sense; common sense; reasonable; judgment; tact; diplomacy; good understanding (she's got ~!) (known for his ~). Also spelled saychel, seychel, etc.
Sechel really means, according to rabbis, a loving heart, and she has one of the biggest. She also has something special that is hard to translate, but it has to do with a sixth sense, one of timing. She knows, perhaps feels, needs we have and then springs into action. After my second throat surgery, I had trouble eating. She sent me a big box of designer breads and preserves (to die for, that box) and I had sustenance. What made her gift so special, apart from its coming from her, was the timing. She knew I needed a lift, a cheer-me-up if you will, because I had been through a lot, and the uncertainty of my situation was eroding my inner strength. A box of bread was more than it seemed, but she knew that, and sprang into action. I owe her much, and truth be told, she is the one person whom I would most like to be, when I grow up.

What I have learned in my wellness trek to beating back cancer is profoundly simple. Cheerleaders emerge from diverse sources, but the workplace is a great beginning, since so much of our lives are spent outside the home. I am grateful for the people, both in and outside of my profession who continue to help me on my journey.

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