Using illness in the classroom

McDonogh teacher talks about cancer

October 18, 2003|By Linda Linley | Linda Linley,SUN STAFF

McDonogh School teacher Jeanne Mulligan has breast cancer. She talks openly about the disease, about the surgery, the chemotherapy treatments that made her sick, about losing her hair and even about being afraid.

After the cancer was diagnosed in the spring, she told her boss - Darren Ford, head of the middle school. And when she returned to teaching English and reading to sixth-graders at the Owings Mills school in September, while receiving chemotherapy, she advocated cancer screening tests for faculty members.

Yesterday, she shared her experiences about fighting cancer with the 373 middle school students in the school, which has students from prekindergarten through 12th grade, because she believes it's important to be honest with them.

"I told the seventh- and eighth-graders when I came back," said Mulligan, who is 49 and will begin radiation treatments in December. "Kids have barometers and sense when there is a problem."

McDonogh Headmaster Bo Dixon told the assembled students he was found to have prostate cancer two years ago, and how the discovery and successful treatment changed his life.

"I'm not afraid to talk about it," said Dixon, 60, who is cancer-free. "There are many people living with cancer. It removes some of the fear if you know the people."

Talking about the disease and educating students about skin safety, diet and nutrition, and the science of cancer were part of what Dixon called a "very unusual day" at McDonogh. All fifth-, sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders participated in a cancer education day that included a Relay for Life walk around the school track.

Ford said he was struck by how open Mulligan has been about her disease and her determination to fight it. He called her one of the strongest people he has met.

"I'm in a good place right now," Mulligan said after the assembly. "The entire school community has been unbelievably supportive."

Ford came up with the idea for the day but said he didn't know how to handle it.

"Using an alternative education day to learn about cancer seemed to fit," he said. "The goal for the day was twofold: First is the educational part, and the second is the community spirit that comes out."

He credited parent Kim Serio and her brother-in-law Michael Serio with arranging the activities for the day. Kim Serio, the mother of four McDonogh students, and her brother-in-law volunteer for the American Cancer Society.

Kim Serio said they got involved after her mother and mother-in-law were diagnosed with cancer about seven years ago. Her mother survived, but her mother-in-law died about six weeks after being diagnosed.

"We are just trying to educate the students by spreading the word at McDonogh," she said.

Her daughter, Rachel Serio, 14 and an eighth-grader, said she wanted her classmates to understand the disease and how important it is to treat those with cancer the same way they were treated before they became sick.

"Some people think of cancer as a death sentence instead of a disease," Rachel said.

For seventh-graders Brandy Smoot, 13, and Montana Blum, 12, the day was also about collecting donations for the American Cancer Society.

"We collected money from neighbors, and students and teachers also brought in money to donate," Brandy said. "We're trying to collect as much as we can."

Montana said students brought quarters, which will be sent to the cancer society, to drop along the track after every lap of the Relay for Life walk.

At the end of the day, the middle-schoolers stood in the middle of the athletic field and spelled out the word "hope" - a mantra of the cancer society and of those with the disease.

The message came through clearly for Tracie Finley, 13, an eighth-grader who wrote a message to a family friend on a T-shirt donated by the society. Tracie is taking the shirt to the woman, who was recently found to have breast cancer.

The message read: "Dear Kiela: Get better soon! We had a day to support cancer and I made this shirt for you. Everyone wishes you well, especially me! Luv Ya Lots!"

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