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Rashe Bowie hadn’t been working at her current company very long when she and her colleagues played Two Truths and a Lie during an offsite meeting. When it was her turn, she shared her son’s name, that she’d been in pageants growing up and that she was undergoing chemotherapy.
The lie, they guessed, was the chemo part. But the lie was her son’s name.
“I’m undergoing chemo for breast cancer, and this is a wig I’m wearing,” she revealed.
“They were in total disbelief,” recalls Rashe, who was 37 years old at the time of her diagnosis.
The company’s CEO told Rashe to take time off if she needed to.
But she has yet to accept that offer. A single mom to a high school senior, Rashe never missed a day of work while undergoing 12 rounds of chemotherapy and 30 rounds of radiation.
An unexpected breast cancer diagnosis
Rashe’s breast cancer diagnosis had surprised her. She’d felt the lump in her left breast a year earlier, but assumed it was benign like a lump she’d found at age 25.
When Rashe and her son moved to Houston in the fall of 2013, the lump started growing aggressively. That’s when Rashe finally saw a doctor. A biopsy revealed breast cancer -- invasive ductal carcinoma, stage 2, grade 3.
Just a few days after her diagnosis, Rashe’s dad died from surgery complications. “It was a lot to deal with at once,” she says. “My cancer diagnosis didn’t fully register, but I was scared.”
Finding comfort at MD Anderson
After her dad’s funeral, Rashe scheduled an appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land, not far from where she lives and works.
She immediately trusted her medical team -- oncologist Mark Lewis, M.D.; surgical oncologist Michelle Shen, M.D., who performed her mastectomy; and plastic surgeon Victor Hassid, M.D., who implanted her expander. “I put so much faith in them, as if they were a religion,” Rashe says. “They made me so comfortable every step of the way.”
This included enabling her to work through chemo and radiation. “When we talked about my treatment plan, I knew I couldn’t quit working,” she says. “I had to provide for my son and keep life as normal as possible for him.”
Working and parenting during cancer treatment
A business development manager, Rashe travels 30 to 40 percent of the time, and she didn’t want to feel sick during those trips or miss work. She also wanted to be there for her son, who was playing on his new high school’s varsity basketball team with hopes of playing in college. This required “learning to live a balanced life,” as Rashe says – and some careful planning.
If her son had a game on Friday night, Rashe got her chemo infusion in Sugar Land on Friday morning. That way, she could rest when the fatigue hit over the weekend. Other times, she got chemo infusions at MD Anderson’s Texas Medical Center Campus on Friday night, Saturday or Sunday.
Toward the end of chemo, Rashe got a stronger cocktail of drugs. She scheduled the infusion so the fatigue wouldn’t hit until the end of her business trip. “It took a toll on my body at the end, but I was finally done,” she says.
When it came time for radiation, Rashe took the earliest appointment at MD Anderson in Sugar Land – 6 or 6:30 a.m. – so she could be at work by 8 a.m.
“It can be done. It’s all about how you look at it,” says Rashe, who credits her positive outlook to her faith and strong support network. “What I was going through with cancer is secondary to what I have at home.”
And what Rashe had at home was a son who thrived despite her diagnosis. He received a full scholarship to play basketball at Rice University.
A world of possibilities
Rashe will finally take time off for breast reconstruction in October. “I don’t want to be off for long,” she admits. “But I’m looking at it like I’m getting something back.”
For Rashe, now an empty-nester, that something is full of possibilities.
“There’s so much more I want to do personally and professionally after cancer,” she says. “I’m thinking about what I’ll do for my 40th birthday. I hope it requires a passport.”
It's no secret that cancer
treatment can cause changes in your appearance. Experiencing those
changes in front of middle school students, however, can be a
In addition to being a mother, wife, sister and daughter with cancer, I am also a middle school teacher.
That means I had 400 students with ring-side seats to my journey through treatment. The teacher in me had to portray strength and stability, but the patient in me was vulnerable and scared.
Middle school students are at an age where they're aware of what cancer is. Some may have a family member who has been through cancer treatment. Some of their parents work in the medical field. Regardless of their own experience, "cancer" is a very scary word to kids at that age.
Developing a sense of humor
When I learned I needed chemotherapy, I was very direct with my students. I told them, "I have cancer and you're going to see me go through some changes while I get better." I made time to tell them about it and allow them to ask questions.
Of course, they were worried that I was going to die. I told them I wasn't because we found it early.
They had lots of questions like "Will you wear funny wigs?" and "Can we vote on what color wigs you wear?" Through these questions that I developed a sense of humor with them.
During my treatment, a few students bought me hats, which I immediately put on. I'm now the proud owner of a Batman cap and a biker hat.
Making the students comfortable
A teachers' first instinct is to protect. I decided to involve my students in my cancer journey, but I also wanted to make them as comfortable as possible.
Before I began chemotherapy, I cut my hair very short so the transition wouldn't be so drastic when I lost my hair.
The kids got so used to it that when I showed up at school in a wig one day, they asked me to take it off. It was too much for them. I figured out their comfort level and went with it, which usually just meant wearing some type of hat.
My cancer barometer
My students have been my barometer throughout my journey.
When I initially envisioned myself undergoing treatment in front of them, I was scared and nervous. But they allowed me to take one day at a time and they rode the ups and downs with me. They were loving on days that I needed it and treated me just like every other teacher on most other days. That's something I really grew to appreciate.
What can I do for my teacher who has cancer?
When a teacher is going through cancer treatment, everyone wants to know how they can help or what they can do. I know it's hard to ask, so I've come up with a list of simple things that students, other teachers and even student's families can do to offer support.
1. Show love. Give your teacher a hug. Even if your teacher is standing in front of the class, acting like nothing is wrong, maybe even smiling -- he or she is not feeling that great. Your teacher's probably tired, nauseous, or maybe just scared or anxious. A smile or a hug really helps push your teacher through the day.
2. Tell your teacher you're happy to see him or her. Maybe it was especially hard for your teacher to get up and get to school that day. Maybe he or she really wanted to call in sick. It's nice to know that your students look forward to seeing you every day.
3. Offer to be their helper. Perhaps you could help make sure your teacher has ice water. Or, maybe you could help "watch" the class if the teacher needs to leave suddenly.
4. Give small gifts. Considering picking up a cheap hat that you think your teacher might like. Or, maybe buy items like hand lotion or fuzzy spa socks, which may help make chemo a little more bearable. Your teacher will be touched that you thought of him or her.
Staci Waites is breast cancer patient at MD Anderson regional care center in Bay Area.