Last year, while being treated for a recurrence of the melanoma she was first diagnosed with in 2003, Sandy Morse felt a small lump in one of her breasts. She mentioned the lump to her surgeon during an appointment, and a biopsy confirmed what the 52-year-old history teacher at Horizon High School in Scottsdale, Arizona, says she already knew: She would now have to deal with breast cancer.
Surgery soon followed, after which Sandy says her oncologist delivered less-than-hopeful news. "He basically told me I had five years to live," Sandy tells us. "He said they'd give me some chemo that would maybe work and that we'd just 'play it by ear' from there." For the devoted wife, mother and teacher, however, that prognosis "didn't fly."
So Sandy — at the urging of her brother — made an appointment at Mayo Clinic's Arizona campus. There she met with oncologist Donald Northfelt, M.D., who Sandy tells us was "much more aggressive" in his proposed treatment plan and more optimistic about the long-term results. "He said, 'I think we have some things that can treat you here, and hopefully 20 years from now, you'll be sitting on your porch enjoying a beer, and life will be great,'" Sandy recalls. "And I said, 'I like your plan a lot better. Let's do it.'"
Dr. Northfelt's plan, Sandy tells us, included an aggressive chemotherapy regimen beginning in early March and lasting through late July 2016. "That seemed doable," she says. "Everything Dr. Northfelt laid out seemed like something I could handle."
What she didn't know, however, was how her students would react. After Sandy delivered the news "as positively as possible," her students responded with their own dose of positivity. One student and his mother made Sandy a blanket to use during her chemo treatments. After Sandy lost her hair, another student suggested everyone in class wear scarves on their heads in support. Sandy's colleagues pitched in as well, providing meals throughout her treatment. Their gestures haven't gone unnoticed. "Everyone's been really awesome, and that's made a huge difference in keeping me going," she says.
Another pick-me-up came partway through Sandy's breast cancer journey, when she was named the 2016 Arizona History Teacher of the Year. The award came as a surprise to Sandy, who was initially nervous about having to give an acceptance speech during a time she didn't feel her best. "But it was a really cool experience," she says.
Another cool experience came last month, when Sandy was able to ceremoniously ring the bell that marks the end of a patient’s cancer treatments at Mayo Clinic. And while she says she's happy to be done, she admits to not being sure what to do with all of the free time she now finds herself with. "All I've been doing since I found out I had cancer is getting treatments," she says. (Knowing teachers, we suspect she'll find a constructive way to fill her time.)
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