Teacher copes with cancer with students' support

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staci rcc bay area.JPGBy Staci Waites

It's no secret that cancer treatment can cause changes in your appearance. Experiencing those changes in front of middle school students, however, can be a challenge.

In addition to being a mother, wife, sister and daughter with cancer, I am also a middle school teacher. 

That means I had 400 students with ring-side seats to my journey through treatment. The teacher in me had to portray strength and stability, but the patient in me was vulnerable and scared.

Middle school students are at an age where they're aware of what cancer is. Some may have a family member who has been through cancer treatment. Some of their parents work in the medical field. Regardless of their own experience, "cancer" is a very scary word to kids at that age.

Developing a sense of humor
When I learned I needed chemotherapy, I was very direct with my students. I told them, "I have cancer and you're going to see me go through some changes while I get better." I made time to tell them about it and allow them to ask questions.

Of course, they were worried that I was going to die. I told them I wasn't because we found it early. 

They had lots of questions like "Will you wear funny wigs?" and "Can we vote on what color wigs you wear?" Through these questions that I developed a sense of humor with them.

During my treatment, a few students bought me hats , which I immediately put on. I'm now the proud owner of a Batman cap and a biker hat.

Making the students comfortable

A teachers' first instinct is to protect. I decided to involve my students in my cancer journey, but I also wanted to make them as comfortable as possible.

Before I began chemotherapy, I cut my hair very short so the transition wouldn't be so drastic when I lost my hair.

The kids got so used to it that when I showed up at school in a wig one day, they asked me to take it off. It was too much for them. I figured out their comfort level and went with it, which usually just meant wearing some type of hat.

My cancer barometer

My students have been my barometer throughout my journey.

When I initially envisioned myself undergoing treatment in front of them, I was scared and nervous. But they allowed me to take one day at a time and they rode the ups and downs with me. They were loving on days that I needed it and treated me just like every other teacher on most other days. That's something I really grew to appreciate.

What can I do for my teacher who has cancer?
When a teacher is going through cancer treatment, everyone wants to know how they can help or what they can do. I know it's hard to ask, so I've come up with a list of simple things that students, other teachers and even student's families can do to offer support.

1. Show love. Give your teacher a hug. Even if your teacher is standing in front of the class, acting like nothing is wrong, maybe even smiling -- he or she is not feeling that great. Your teacher's probably tired, nauseous, or maybe just scared or anxious. A smile or a hug really helps push your teacher through the day.
2. Tell your teacher you're happy to see him or her. Maybe it was especially hard for your teacher to get up and get to school that day. Maybe he or she really wanted to call in sick. It's nice to know that your students look forward to seeing you every day.
3. Offer to be their helper. Perhaps you could help make sure your teacher has ice water. Or, maybe you could help "watch" the class if the teacher needs to leave suddenly.
4. Give small gifts. Considering picking up a cheap hat that you think your teacher might like. Or, maybe buy items like hand lotion or fuzzy spa socks, which may help make chemo a little more bearable. Your teacher  will be touched that you thought of him or her.

Staci Waites is breast cancer patient at MD Anderson regional care center in Bay Area.

1 Comment

Thanks for posting this. I found out that I have cancer a couple weeks ago and this really helped me to think of what I am going to say to my students.

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