Cancer. It’s more than a word; it’s a pronouncement. It calls for changes in lifestyle and work habits. It initiates one into a world of hospitals, operations, clinics, chemotherapy, vitamins, and health food. It changes exercise from merely keeping fit to battling for life. Cancer was found within me in early August of 1991.
I had just been offered a job teaching English at the high school I graduated from 22 years ago. Summer was winding down. My wife and I were planning on the last trip of the summer vacation. Things were looking up. We had just returned to western New York to be closer to old friends and family. We found jobs and were looking for a home. I was to meet with my new principal in mid-August to get my assignment. I just needed to go for a checkup, and then we were off to the mountains.
That’s when they found the cancer. It had to be removed quickly. My doctor said I’d need to take a leave from work. But since I was hired as a permanent substitute teacher and had not yet been approved by the school board, getting a leave seemed dubious.
I was still in the hospital on the day I was scheduled to meet with the principal; I canceled the appointment. Then, I called the director of personnel and told him that I would be unable to start teaching in September. I told him I had cancer and started to cry. I gave the phone to my wife; I couldn’t go on.
Oddly, I was thinking of Lou Gehrig. I could now empathize with him on that day in the dugout when he told his manager that he could no longer play baseball. For the first time in my life as a teacher, I could not answer the call of fall.
Unbelievably, the school system gave me a break. They told me I could take a half or full year leave of absence. I opted to return for the second semester.
I have been teaching for 17 years. As soon as I stepped out of college, I landed a teaching position and have not missed a year since.
Now, the “Back to School’’ ads were chiming over the networks, the leaves were starting to turn, and for the first time since I was five, I was not anxiously preparing for school. Instead, I was trying to figure out how I had contracted this disease.
By most standards, I was not a likely candidate for cancer. I was in good health, didn’t smoke, watched my diet, exercised, and had no family history of the disease. But I may have had an unexpected risk-factor.
As I was getting my first treatment of chemo, the nurse asked me what I did for a living. “I teach,’' I said. She smiled and shook her head. “We get a lot of teachers here,’' she said. “In fact, I was thinking of doing a study--you know, to see if there is a link or something.’'
What she said got me thinking. I had read that a number of doctors believe that stress may heighten the risk of cancer, and I began to suspect that it may have triggered the disease within me.
The way I embraced my teaching duties created stress; I had been feeling a lot of it. Problems of my students became my problems. I used my planning and lunch hours to help students. I spent free time talking to parents, colleagues, and counselors. After school, I coached sports--sometimes two or more a year. I attended games, matches, plays, concerts, open houses, committee meetings, conferences, and workshops. I spent hours at home each night correcting papers and, revved up on coffee, reported to work early each morning to get a jump on the day. I used weekends to catch up and prepare. I became short tempered, developed a nervous stomach, then an ulcer, and finally colon cancer. Death knocks.
If I had lung cancer, I’d quit smoking. If the cancer was linked to asbestos in my home, I’d rip it out. But I do not want to quit teaching. Even though it had begun to devour me, it still brings me great joy. So, I have decided to return to teaching but not as the same teacher. If I am to survive, I must change my approach--create a balance.
I have decided to finish my work at school. What does not get finished by 5 p.m. will have to wait until the next day. I will no longer coach or direct. Planning periods will be reserved for me. I will not interrupt my lunch; I will relax, make jokes, and restore my strength for the next class. After all, even mules get a break. My weekends and vacations will be reserved for revitalizing and refreshing with my family.
I will still be the best teacher I can be in the classroom, but I will no longer be all things to all people; like a lifeboat, everyone drowns if I take on too much. I will settle to be known as a good teacher, rather than a teacher, coach, chairperson, committee member, workshop coordinator, and adviser. I want teaching to enhance my life, not consume it. Cancer has shown me the need to let go and slow down. Teaching gives me the will to go on.
A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as The Road To Recovery