Teacher integrates cancer battle into classes

 
 

SARASOTA COUNTY — What happens when a health teacher gets cancer?

Ask Denice Maynard.

You’ll find her at the fields of Kinnan Elementary School sporting shorts and a baseball cap. The long hair both she and her students loved is gone now, having fallen victim to her first round of chemotherapy March 4.

“One of the units I always do is diseases control and prevention,” Maynard said. “Last year, the chronic disease was diabetes. This year, I used myself.

“Children are going to talk,” she added. “I didn’t want them to be scared, and I wanted them to know that even though I have a disease, it’s not contagious. Hopefully, they’ll see cancer doesn’t have to be scary.”

In January, the mother of two was diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer, an extremely aggressive form of the disease that grew from a small lump to a golf-ball sized mass in several months.

Two mornings after her first round of chemotherapy March 4, Maynard stood in the shower for an hour watching clumps of her hair fall out. Unsure of what to do next, she pulled the rest of her hair up in a handkerchief and headed to the classroom.

That night, a hairdresser shaved the rest of it off, and Maynard wore a wig until after she started the disease control and prevention unit with her classes on March 16. Although Maynard didn’t use the word cancer in her explanation, she described her chronic illness as one that would require her to have chemotherapy and lose her hair.

Most of the students have figured out her diagnosis, and the discussion that has followed has been invaluable.

Because Maynard has been a model of good health by running marathons and eating healthy, students were quick to ask why she, of all people, would get sick.

“Sometimes you don’t know,” Maynard had explained. “It’s not something you do. Sometimes it just happens.”

Maynard purposely scheduled her chemotherapy treatments on Wednesday afternoons, which are half-days for students, so she would not miss time with the children. And although each chemotherapy treatment causes fatigue and other symptoms that last about a week, Maynard has not missed a full day of classes except for her when she had her lumpectomy and a surgery to have her lymph nodes removed.

Although she has kept as active as possible, Maynard admits she has to put some limitations on what she can continue to do with students. She no longer runs laps with students during class, and instruction time has moved outside to help keep her immune system from being compromised.

Faculty members at Kinnan have rallied around Maynard, coordinating meals for the days she has treatments and trying to help her as much as possible. They even organized a fundraiser April 2 to help pay for medical expenses, she said.

“Maybe I should take advantage of them wanting to clean my house, but I haven’t done that yet,” she said with a laugh.

Maynard could put her teaching career and other interests on hold while she undergoes treatment, but she said her passion for education and determination to overcome has continued to keep her in the classroom.

“If I stopped everything that makes me, me, then I feel like the cancer has won,” Maynard said. “I honestly think that (staying active) is helping me cope with everything.”

While Maynard’s illness has forced her to be more open with students than a teacher normally would be, she knows that the months ahead will only cause her to be more vulnerable.

Maynard is scheduled to finish her chemotherapy the last week of July, which will be followed by six weeks of radiation.

Contact Pam McTeer at pmcteer@yourobserver.com.

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