Cancer is tough, but so is teacher

Column by Ann Macari Healey

Posted 10/4/12

She dreamed of being an actress. Instead, she became a teacher — of English, speech and theater. And, now, of how to live. Again. For the second …

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Cancer is tough, but so is teacher

Column by Ann Macari Healey


She dreamed of being an actress. Instead, she became a teacher — of English, speech and theater.

And, now, of how to live.


For the second time in nearly 10 years, Sally Graham is fighting breast cancer. She's 60, still a teacher of English and speech, a mother of two grown sons, a grandmother, a wife, a friend, a singer in her church choir.

At first, the unexpected news shattered her normally upbeat demeanor. She cried, hurriedly left school, drove home, fed the dogs. She reached for her husband's hand and apologized in a trembling voice for having to go through this one more time. She felt angry, betrayed. She stared into space, remembering plans to celebrate in February her 10-year milestone without the disease.

She got good and depressed. And, then, she bounced.

The next morning, there was Sally, her usual cheery self, brown eyes bright and clear, smiling good mornings, stepping purposefully into her classroom of high school students — the ones who keep her young — her mission firmly resolved.

“I'm a teacher,” she said. “Through it all, no matter how it happens, I am going to teach people how to live, how to enjoy life, how to be blessed by each day.”

The resilience of the human spirit can catch you by surprise. It expands and surges from depths often unknown, like a miracle, when we need it most. When we see it in others, it promises hope that we, too, can rise if tested.

Research shows resilience can be learned, too. It's a skilled mindset — viewing problems as opportunities, using optimism to counter setbacks, learning from experience, setting meaningful goals, turning to others for support.

“When you have resilience,” the Mayo Clinic reports, “you harness inner strength that helps you rebound from a setback or challenge. ...”

For Sally, resilience is a dependable companion.

Her first diagnosis remains vivid.

Christmas, 2002. She felt a lump while showering. “I just knew. I sat on the bed and cried and then got ready for Christmas morning.”

When the diagnosis came back positive, she prayed, “`Please, God, let me live five more years. I want to see my grandchildren.' ”

The lumpectomy took place in February 2003. Then came the hard part — six months of chemotherapy-fueled misery, followed by a month and a half of radiation.

The worst moment occurred several days after the first chemo treatment. Sally grabs chunks of her shoulder-length brown hair, remembering. She was in the shower when it began falling out in fistfuls. She couldn't stop the tears. “It's so strange the things we need to feel beautiful.”

Her husband, Greg, said: “I can take care of that.” He sat her down at the kitchen table and shaved her head with a razor. And then, said Sally, “it was OK.”

The teacher learned to be less judgmental, to let go of pride. But one of the most important lessons came from the unfailing love and support of those around her. With the exception of the few days around chemo treatments, she was able to teach her classes throughout. “I taught in a school where I was lifted up daily by my faculty and students ... With support, you don't feel like you're alone.”

The buoyant effect of an encouraging network doesn't surprise Susan Brown, managing director of community health for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. “Studies show having social support increases mood and decreases stress and depression and the perception of pain,” Brown said. “At the same time, it helps regain the sense of control they feel they've lost when they hear they have breast cancer.”

So, here Sally is once again. And already, an outpouring of love from family, friends and colleagues is coming her way. Her eyes brim. “That caring — that's gold.”

Things are a little different this time.

She is positive, yet accepting, too. The lump is small, less than a quarter-inch. Chances are good it has not metastasized. On Oct. 8, she will have a double mastectomy, to lessen the risk of another recurrence. Maybe she'll need chemo. Maybe she won't. Maybe she doesn't have a long life ahead. But she's OK with that.

“I got to see my grandson.” Her smile stretches wide. “My sons are in a good place. I feel like I've accomplished most of what I wanted to accomplish in terms of personal goals. ... I feel like I've touched students' lives. I've loved. I've had a chance to love unconditionally and completely and been loved back.”

She has just one fear.

“I'm afraid that I'm not going to bounce back like I want to.” She pauses, glancing away. “I'm afraid that I'm so old that I won't be able to be the teacher, after that, that I am now.”

But Sally will do what she needs to do. Fight. Love. Live.

“I do think we rise to the level we're tested. If we allow ourselves to respond to it, we can overcome anything. ... I've seen people dying who, with their last breath, were still living. And that is a lesson to be taught.”

If anyone can teach it, Sally Graham can.

Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at or 303-566-4110.


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