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Proving that cancer is not a death sentence, local middle school teacher Lisia Farley underwent medical treatment while still teaching her class
by: Tracy Stepp, Rosemont Ridge Middle School social studies teacher Lisia Farley shares a moment with her eighth-grade students on the last day of school; at left is Kyle Revilla.

There's never a good time to hear your doctor utter the 'C' word.

So when eighth-grade social studies teacher Lisia Farley picked up her classroom phone last September and heard the word cancer, she nearly collapsed.

She admits being 'scared to death.'

'I was called during class, and they told me over the phone that I had cancer,' said Farley, still unable to hold back the tears while speaking about it. 'And I did the best I could to not upset the kids.'

With tears running down her face, the 23-year teacher left the room and went directly to Rosemont Ridge Middle School Principal Thayne Balzer's office.

She didn't hold back her tears. After all, she was just beginning a new school year, and she had lots of plans for her students.

'I walked into the principal's office, and he shut the door and just let me cry,' she said. 'He was very, very supportive, along with everybody on the staff.'

The road ahead seemed uncertain to Farley because she has been around long enough to know that cancer and death used to be synonymous.

'The people that I know that have had cancer aren't around anymore,' she said. 'That made it very scary.'

Knowing that the road ahead would be filled with potholes, she decided to undergo the treatment while still maintaining her teaching position at Rosemont.

And the result was a huge learning experience - not only for Farley, but also for the members of her teaching team as well as for her students and their parents.

'After I found out I had cancer,' she said, 'I put the kids in a big circle and asked them about their family and friends who had been diagnosed with cancer. After I told them what I had, I asked (the school nurse) to come in and answer questions about the disease.'

Farley also brought the school counselor into her classroom and she discussed how the kids could support Farley in what she anticipated would be a challenge.

'I try to do this whole process with the kids of taking on the responsibility of running the classroom,' Farley said, 'helping me do a mental attendance and designing things that are put on the wall. So, as things needed to be done in the classroom, kids would walk up and say: 'Can I help you? Is there anything that needs to be done today?''

Farley not only worked with the four other members of her teaching team (Jeff Coleman, Allison Gilbert, Charles Kralovec and Jessamyn Van Hook), but also with substitute Helene Callagan.

During chemo treatments, Farley would require a week to recover from the injections, and Callagan would teach the lessons Farley had prepared.

Then, Farley would return for about two weeks before taking another week off for another chemo treatment.

That schedule was repeated from October 2005 to March 2006.

'Our goal was to keep things as consistent as possible,' Farley said. 'And Helene was available (to substitute) almost all of the year.'

Throughout the process of treating the cancer and the recovery, Farley was very open with her students, thus making it a strong learning experience for them.

And a fun experience, too.

'I let them know early-on that one of the chemo drugs that I would get would make me bald,' she said. 'And some of them brought me temporary tattoos. Some of them had a little contest to see who could find the best dark chocolate, because I told them about the diet my doctor gave me (dark chocolate is a good anti-oxidant).'

An example of the compassion and caring attitudes unleashed in the wake of Farley's cancer diagnosis is the girl who brought a teddy bear for Farley to hug while receiving chemo treatment.

Parents of her students also gave her support. Farley kept them updated, especially about the way the students were dealing with Farley's disease.

Callagan wasn't the only teacher that Farley appreciated. She got a lot of support from her eighth-grade teaching partners.

'(Coleman, Gilbert, Kralovec and Van Hook) have just been fabulous,' Farley said. 'I know that my kids talked with other teachers about me. It was a good way for them to process what was going on. And it made our little group (of teachers) even tighter than it already is. They and my substitute just picked up any slack that I left behind.'

Farley also praised the group of professionals that surrounded her in her time of need.

'(Receiving cancer treatment and teaching) was pretty seamless,' Farley said. 'I feel very blessed to be in this teaching community because I could see this happening a lot differently; it could have been a lot harder. And the administration was very good about letting me do what I needed to do to take care of myself. I was just overwhelmed by the support.'

She tried very hard, she said, to give this year's students the same experiences all of her other classes have received. And she hopes her example will remind her students if a life-changing experience should befall them that there will be a web of support on which to depend.

Farley made it through the chemo treatments and then began six weeks of radiation therapy.

'I did the radiation in the morning before I came to school,' she said, 'and taught full days.'

In fact, her students also made it through a variety of challenges: her chemo treatments, the days when she needed help just lifting something that any of her students could easily lift, the few days when she didn't have the energy to get out of bed, the uncertainty of their teacher's health and a year of not knowing which teacher would be in the classroom when they arrived.

On the last day of school, when the reality of the eighth-graders' graduation came home to roost, Farley became very emotional at the thought of losing those kids.

'They're leaving,' she said of her entire class. 'And there will always be a special place in my heart for this group. We've gone through this together.'

She still takes a regimen of cancer drugs even though the cancer is gone. And to prove she's not intimidated by limitations, Farley and her husband are spending the summer in Italy, Turkey, Switzerland and France.

'This is a great opportunity for a social studies teacher,' she said. 'No dust is gathering under my feet.'