Teaching Profession Opinion

How I Told My Students I Have Cancer

By Starr Sackstein — December 01, 2016 3 min read
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Guest post by Justin Birckbichler

What’s harder than hearing you have cancer? To me, telling my fourth grade students that I have cancer and I’ll have to miss months of school to get it treated was so much harder than hearing it myself.

I was diagnosed with Stage IIB Nonseminoma testicular cancer in early November 2016 after having been out for a week and a half prior to get the cancerous mass removed. Before I left for the surgery, the cancer diagnosis was not yet confirmed, so I didn’t want to drop the cancer bomb on my students, only to find out it wasn’t cancer after the doctors biopsied the mass. Instead, I told them it was a leg surgery when I left.

At my post-op appointment, not only was the cancer confirmed, but I learned it had also spread to my lymph nodes. This meant chemotherapy and 12 weeks off from school. It was time to tell my students the truth.

I ran my plan by my principal and the school counselor: I would be open and honest with them, and follow the discussion with a letter for their families.

On my first day back after surgery, the students filtered in, excited to see me again. Little did they know, we only had about a week together before I would leave again.

We began our morning meeting.

It was hard to focus on the minutiae of the daily schedule, sharing time, and the review of expectations.

After those details were done, finally, it was time.

“The reason I’ve been out for so long is because I have cancer.”

Tears, bewilderment, awkward glances. These were the predominant reactions I saw in the sea of nine- and 10-year-old faces.

“Before I say anything more, I want you to know this is very treatable. I will be ok, but I will need chemotherapy for a few months. I will be here this week and maybe next, but I don’t know when I’ll be back.”

In an instant, their small frames of reference had changed. A 4th grader’s biggest concern is usually solving a multiplication problem (or more accurately, if they traded their Charizard EX for a better card), but now they were hearing that their teacher had cancer, which can be one of the scariest words for a person of any age.

I asked if they had questions.

Of course they did.

Was I in pain? No, not really. How did I know I was sick? I had felt something wrong on my body. (Because they were 4th graders, I did not get into my specific type of cancer. With older students, I would have, especially because most testicular cancer diagnoses occur in 15 to 35-year-old men). Would I lose my hair? Probably. Would I die? Almost definitely not. My prognosis had over a 90 percent cure rate, which are incredible odds.

If you ever are thrust into this type of situation, the best advice I can offer is to be open and honest. Get out ahead of speculation. Find trade books that help bring a cancer diagnosis to your students’ level and share other stories.

Each day I asked my students for questions, and they always had new and insightful ones for me. I think this actually helped when I did finally leave for chemotherapy. While there were tears initially when I told them, I did not see many when I saw my class for the last time. I chalked this up to our classroom family being so open about this entire ordeal. The students, their families, the school, and I bonded together to make sure that my diagnosis did not result in undue stress for these young children.

Even as I’m out for the next 12 weeks, I’m still keeping in contact with my students through Google Classroom. They write to me one day, and I write back the next day during my chemo treatments. Questions keep pouring in, but I’m keeping my answers as straightforward as possible .

That’s the key here. Cancer can be scary if you let it be. Take it out of the darkness and bring it into the light. Knowledge truly is power.

Justin Birckbichler is a 4th grade teacher in Stafford, Va., and a Google for Education Certified Innovator. He is currently battling testicular cancer and has a strong prognosis of being 100 percent cured (not just in remission). You can follow his journey and help spread awareness. Read a longer version of this story at his educational blog. Connect with him directly via Twitter or email.

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