Managing Editor: Quyen Vo, Ph.D., J.D.
TEACH AND BE TAUGHT
By Lynn Snowden
Lynn had touched the lives of thousands of students during her long teaching career, but overcoming cancer made her a mentor to countless others. Breast cancer runs in her family, but so do laughter and strength.
What is the hardest thing you have had to go through? If you could go back in time, would you change anything about your life? What advice do you have for us? These were just three of the myriad of questions two of my former students asked while interviewing me for a project for their eighth grade English class. During the interview, I told the girls that I was a breast cancer survivor. I explained that my fight against cancer was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences, because it changed my perspective and outlook on life. It encouraged me to reflect on the blessings in my own life and to use my experience to help other people facing similar adversities.
After I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I struggled to care for myself, my fourteen-year-old son, and my elderly parents. On my forty-fifth birthday, I had the first of three surgeries; and because the cancer had metastasized to the lymph nodes under my left arm, I started chemotherapy just ten days after surgery. The surgeries were anxiety producing and the chemotherapy completely debilitating. After chemotherapy, I faced a critical decision: whether to keep the breast and have radiation, have a mastectomy with reconstruction, or have a bilateral mastectomy. I chose the latter.
My decision was based on the fact that I needed to be alive for my son. I was a single mother raising an autistic son with Tourette syndrome. The thought that I might not be alive to care for him was disheartening. Yet, I persevered in part because of my mother, who was also a breast cancer survivor and who was a true model of strength and courage for me. Whenever I encountered a challenging situation while raising my son, my mother would often pull up quotes on life from famous people and authors. I remember fondly one of my mother’s quotes by Mark Twain; it says: “When a boy turns fourteen seal him in a barrel and feed him through a knot hole.” This quote, like many of her sayings, would help diffuse a difficult situation and give me cause for a giggle. My mother knew that laughter was good medicine. And she was great at laughter.
A Different Way of Seeing Things
Although I battled cancer while raising a son and caring for my elderly parents, I told my former students during the interview that I would not change a thing about my life. Upon reflection, I recognized that my fight against cancer had given me a renewed sense of empathy, compassion, faith, and hope. With a more understanding, charitable and optimistic mindset, I have been able to help other parents with autistic children, console countless women diagnosed with cancer, and hold the hands of friends who have heard the whisper of death.
My experience fighting cancer has taught me that my behavior affects not only my own feelings but also the feelings of those around me. When I was “chemo bald” and looking quite gray, I would see fear on the faces of people I would come into contact with. This would continue until I started to smile and laugh at my own circumstances. In response to this anecdote, my two former students asked if I had any advice to share. I told them to walk into every day with a grateful heart and to live each day as if it is the last. I know that it is important to love and sing and dance and laugh, so I advised my students to enjoy laughter and laugh until their sides hurt and tears roll. As my mother would say, “A day without laughter is a wasted one.”
As we ended the interview, I told my students that it might be odd for them to hear me say that cancer was a blessing. But it was. In part because of my adversities, I have been able to touch the lives of over 10,000 children during my teaching career. I am truly privileged to be the mother of a marvelous young man who is now twenty-eight years old. And I am blessed beyond measure to be a cancer survivor and see the miracles that abound each and every day.
Lynn has taught all subjects and grades K-8 for 34 years and is currently working with 6th graders.