Lessons Learned

(This is part 5 of a 5-series on my great cancer journey. Catch up with parts 123 and 4 before reading this one.)

As I underwent each stage of my breast cancer journey, I was presented with moments. These moments reminded me of life’s lessons. These lessons weren’t actually new, but had magnificent meaning with my new perspective.

What was even more extraordinary was that these lessons not only applied to me as a new-found patient, but also applied to me as an educator. You might be saying– what?!?! But it’s true.

Here are, in no particular order, the 10 lessons that I learned as a patient.

  1. Have a support structure. Cancer was not something that I could fight myself. I needed moral, emotional, and sometimes physical support to get through this time. Family, friends, colleagues, and people from all walks of life showed their love and support in a variety of ways. I made it my mission to keep expressing my appreciation. I didn’t want anyone to think that I took their kindness for granted. Even my math colleagues would cheer me on at conferences. They know who they are.
  • As a teacher, we head into the classroom knowing that we have other teachers to lean on as support. There’s also the principals, district admin, TOSAs, and classified staff to help. My advice to teachers is to always find at least one person to buddy up with. You need someone in your corner.

2. Be an advocate for yourself. In the weeks after my mammogram and the initial call, there was a lot of time spent waiting for the next part. The waiting was excruciating. I finally showed up to one of the doctors’ office and insisted that they make an appointment for me. Within a half hour they made an appointment for my biopsy. This is just one example of my self advocacy And throughout my journey, I realized that I had to speak up for myself. No one else was going to question things (except my mother).

  • As educators, one of the main responsibilities is to advocate for our students. We have voices and we need to speak out when our students can’t. Teachers need to also advocate for themselves and for each other. I’ve had to stand up to principals and district administrators. It’s not easy and it takes guts. However, if there’s been a wrong-doing that needs correcting, we need to advocate.

3. Everyone is going to give you advice – DO YOU! Many people would love to give me their anecdotes on how to battle cancer. I heard so much “advice” that it started to make my head spin. Instead I decided that I would do this my way. I couldn’t listen to anyone else’s advice unless 1. they were my doctor or 2. they’ve had cancer previously.

Sometimes as teachers we seek advice from other colleagues about a variety of things. And sometimes, what has worked for one teacher doesn’t necessarily mean that it’ll work for you. Take it with a grain of salt. Figure out what does work for you. It might take some trial and error….but you’ll figure it out. You do you!

4. It’s a good day to have a good day. I didn’t want to be one of those patients that constantly cries and feels pitiful. I’m quite the opposite of that. I love to bring a smile to anyone. I love to make people laugh. And that’s why I figured out that I can have a better time of this just based on my attitude. After all, I’m in control of my attitude and perception. This was my favorite lesson to type about. I realized this during one of my chemo sessions. During one of my treatments, I had fallen asleep and woke up to a patient and her 2 sisters staring at me. They were crying really hard. I went on to start watching Netflix on my iPad and was laughing and smiling throughout the show. The sisters finally struck up a conversation and asked, “How do you do it?” I told them that I had a choice. I could choose to cry all the time (which wouldn’t help any) or make the best of it with laughter, jokes, and smiles. I chose positive vibes.

I’ve learned through the course of my tenure that you can’t control what happens in the classroom. However, you can control how you react!!!

5. Keep a sense of humor. Despite all the needles, the pain, and the gravity of my health, I had to keep a smile on my face and everyone else’s face. To alleviate any awkwardness about my hair loss, I would be quick to crack a joke. I would apologize for being late because my hair volumizer was a pain to deal with. That usually gave people a sigh of relief and would calm everyone’s hesitations. My newest joke as my hair grows back is that I look like a dysfunctional chia pet. Seriously….it’s not fully grown to do anything with it, but it’s growing.

As a teacher, you are dealing with kids all day long. You better come with a sense of humor. All kinds of strange and crazy things are going to happen with your students. But my motto has been that you have to keep on laughing. Life only happens once and we need to embrace the good, the bad and the ugly.

6. Sometimes you don’t have control. The sound of this lesson contradicts lesson #4, but hear me out. As a patient, I couldn’t control the fact that I had 3 surgeries. I couldn’t control what was happening with my tumor, how big it was, or the shape of it. I couldn’t control what medications/chemo drugs would be best for me. I couldn’t control the fact that I needed chemo at all. I couldn’t control my body’s reactions to all the chemo drugs in my system. But I had to deal with it. As I said before, I can control my attitude about getting through it.

As teachers, we can’t control everything. We are lucky if we can control our own classrooms, but there are other things that are out of our control (district/admin/principal decisions). It stinks, but we deal with it the best way we can.

7. Small things can make a huge impact. Here’s my story. During one of the chemo treatments, I chatted with a patient next to me for a few hours. She was in for a non-cancerous infusion. During our conversation, she asked about my story. I told her about my breast cancer. She told me that she knits all kinds of hats and that she’ll send me one. We exchanged information and she left. Frankly I didn’t think too much of it. About a week later during one of my worst days, a package arrived at my doorstep. In the package were two knit hats and a Christmas card. After reading the card, I broke down and cried. My emotions were overwhelmed at the thought of a total stranger doing such a huge act of kindness. And the thought of having only had one conversation with her only to never see her again was heartening.

Teachers can be a big influence to their students. And sometimes it’s the smallest things that can impact a student such as a smile, a sticker, or even a high five. It brightens their day and instills in them a confidence that they are worthy. We don’t realize it sometimes, but those moments are what will carry on with our students.

8. Celebrate the small victories. Cancer is a big scary word. It brings such heaviness and seriousness to everyday life. And rather than going to a negative place, I kept a positive perspective. With every little piece of good news, I had to do a dance. For instance, my cancer was only stage 1. It never travelled into my lymph nodes. That’s good news. You have to find the good at every step of your journey.

Between media knocking us down and politicians who think they know what’s right for education, teachers are constantly under scrutiny. It can take a toll on us emotionally. But when school’s in session, we close our doors and have our students to worry about. It’s in those 4 walls of the classroom where inspiration happens. And when those small moments happen, we need to celebrate, smile, and be proud of the work we are doing with our students.

9. Keep fighting the good fight. During my journey, questions constantly swirled around my head especially on my bad days. Why am I doing this? What’s the point? Why do I need to put my body through so much? I knew the answers as I also knew what my goal was, but there were moments when I wanted to quit. However, then there would be a reminder of why I needed to keep going. I needed to do this so that I could see my son grow up and grow old with my hubby.

As teachers, we constantly ask the question–what’s best for our students? And we know that whatever we teach them or how we teach them, the school year is going to be a rough ride. We will have to prevail against technology, parents, administrators, and whatever other battles we are faced with. And during each battle, we will ask ourselves “what am I fighting for?” It comes down to one answer–our students.

10. Believe I saw the best of humanity during what will be my hardest chapter in my life. I didn’t know what to expect, but each act of kindness, compassion, or empathy filled my heart. It reminded me what I was fighting for. My venture to good health strengthened my belief that people are good. Humankind will take care of each other. You have to believe in truth, kindness, joy, faith, happiness, love, and the human spirit. Click on the blue words to see for yourself.

That’s my story. It’s been a cathartic experience to write this series–one that I welcomed. I don’t know what lies ahead, but I’m looking forward to new beginnings. It feels like a rebirth.

Before I go, I’d be remiss not to thank the plethora of people who got me this far – Ruben, Jared, Mom, George, Tim, Jasmine, Jon, Karen, Ellen, Stacy, Clint, Amanda, Natalie, my colleagues at Merlinda and Walnut Grove, my family in NY, all of my in-laws, and my math colleagues via Twitter. You all gave me the courage and the strength to win this battle. Thank you.

Until next time,

The Cancer Free–Kristen


  1. I have just discovered your website. I am so thankful for the resources but more importantly that you have come through such a difficult journey. I am so happy for you.

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