One thing Paula didn’t want to be known as was “the teacher with cancer.” So from the time of her diagnosis in 2005 until her death this past October, she made it easy for us to forget she was dealing with a fatal illness every day.
Paula’s story is not atypical, but still her diagnosis was shocking. She was in the prime of her life and career. At 48, with a husband and three sons, I know Paula felt her life was full and meaningful. Her only sign that something wasn’t quite right with her health was increased fatigue. Teachers live with fatigue. We just push through it. Paula had a load like many of us — five classes of ninth grade English students, adviser for the school yearbook, junior class sponsor (which in our school means working on the prom).
A trip to her doctor for a full check up over spring break resulted in a diagnosis that rocked the world for all of us who taught with her: Stage 4 Inflammatory Breast Cancer, the most aggressive form. Though I still hold my breath when I hear those words, nothing in Paula’s diagnosis even hinted at how it would affect my life.
Paula and I had a lot in common. We both attended the same high school, graduating a year apart. Our paths crossed again when Paula left the corporate world to become a teacher a decade ago. I had been teaching at our alma mater for many years when she joined our faculty after teaching three years at a feeder middle school. She became one of a trio. She, a colleague named Mary Jane and I comprised the journalism department in our high school.
We shared a world of long weekends and bad fast food as we helped students meet their publication deadlines. Deadlines are always stressful, and deadlines with teenagers are insanity. Paula could have understandably stepped down from her position as yearbook adviser when she became ill, but she didn’t. And she continued to take students to conventions and training seminars. Her stamina was amazing. Often I secretly hoped she would get tired so I would have an excuse for my own fatigue, but Paula never even missed a day of school through her chemotherapy treatments.
It seems teaching was Paula’s salvation, her sanity. School was a safe haven from cancer. High schools are filled with youth and vitality. The energy from her students motivated and recharged her. At school each day Paula had a bigger agenda than cancer. After all, there were the classic pieces of literature to read, yearbook pages to be sent to the publisher, and prom favors to order. It seemed to all of us that cancer had no time nor place in Paula’s life. She lived that way, and so did we.
The first school year following Paula’s diagnosis came to an end, and I remember how hopeful we were that the summer would be a healing time for her. That hope soon vanished. On Memorial Day, Paula was rushed to the emergency room. Bad had just gone to worse. The cancer had spread to her brain. Her condition was fragile all summer, and a new school year started without Paula in her classroom. But, true to form, she taught from home. She sent lesson plans and yearbook assignments and maintained amazing control over her responsibilities. We deemed her our hero when she came back to work full time after the first nine-weeks grading period. Once again it looked like Paula had beaten cancer. Along the way she educated us about this stubborn disease, and taught us how to live fully in the moment.
The only time I saw Paula down about having cancer was late this past summer. She had lost some motor coordination and had to use a wheelchair to get around. That didn’t stop her, of course. She had already made a plan on how to teach from the wheelchair, but her doctors wouldn’t agree to letting her come back to school.
Cancer she could handle; not being able to come to school she found unbearable. Still, I thought that Paula would beat the odds, until mid-October when she had to be hospitalized again. She went in and out of consciousness for several days. When she spoke to us, her words were of yearbook business and due dates -- teaching until the end. The last time I saw Paula alive, I stood by her bed and talked to her about our calendar. She opened her eyes for the first time in days. We both knew this was her final deadline.
Looking back at Paula’s fight, I feel fortunate to have been a witness. And not just a witness, but her student. She taught me from a lesson plan that included these objectives: continue to work hard, but take care of myself; accept the burdens and struggles that come my way; set goals, and find ways around the obstacles; ask for help when I need it; teach well, because every day may be the day I make a breakthrough. Most of all, assess my life at regular intervals to keep it all in perspective.
It’s a pretty simple plan; the hard part is keeping it simple each and every day. The way Paula did.