High Shoals Elementary School teacher Amanda Burke shudders when thinking about how she almost discarded an appointment postcard from her OB/GYN. But thankfully she reconsidered and scheduled a routine mammogram.

Because of that mammogram, Burke will likely not have to undergo chemotherapy, nor will she have to endure radiation treatment. She was diagnosed with stage 2 breast cancer, but her lymph nodes were clear and her cancer is low grade.

Because of her family history, Burke opted to take what she called the most radical route: a double mastectomy. Burke returned to HSES this week after a month and a half medical leave. Her diagnosis hit close to home for students and staff still mourning the loss of paraprofessional Marge Saar, who died last year of ovarian cancer.

“Marge was such an inspiration to us all as she bravely fought against that terrible cancer,” said Burke, who walked alongside Saar at last year’s Relay for Life a week before Saar’s death. Burke said she also found empowerment through Connie Alger, a parent who recently finished treatment for breast cancer.

“She has really been such a wonderful example of staying positive through it all,” said Burke. “It’s been helpful to have someone I know who has been going through the same thing.”

In November, Burke was called to the school gymnasium for what she initially assumed to be a Veterans Day ceremony. A sea of pink-shirted children and the gathering of friends and family brought tears to her eyes. At the assembly, school counselor Tyler Boykin introduced some of the students who wrote get-well letters.

Teachers collaborated with Athens Church of Christ, of which Burke attends, to cook meals during her convalesce. Burke had to borrow a rolling cart to transport a cornucopia of cards and gifts. One student even gave her a church bulletin to show that Burke was on a prayer list.

“I have never seen such love, care and compassion,” said Burke.  “I absolutely believe that I am safely cradled in the palm of God’s hand. I really believe God is teaching me so many lessons through this, and I am praying that I won’t miss any of them.”

Boykin told students that it’s perfectly OK to hug their teacher, because cancer is not contagious. Burke said an open dialogue about her diagnosis has prompted some female friends to get a mammogram, and she’s been equally forthcoming about the disease with her students.

“I don’t believe it should be a hush-hush thing,” she said, citing the American Cancer Society’s statistic that one in eight women will be diagnosed in their lifetime.

“Knowledge is power,” said Burke. “By educating my students about cancer, they’ll be able to help their mothers and grandmothers know what to look for and what steps to take.”

During the school assembly, Boykin gave tips on cancer prevention, such as eating healthy foods, abstaining from smoking and applying sunscreen when outside.

Burke said she felt lucky in part because breast cancer research is as well financed as it is publicized.

“I wish there were as many options available to target other types of cancers,” she said. “We need to remember that all cancers need just as much attention.”

Burke encourages people to support Relay for Life “ because you never know when you will need the resources it supports.”

Rocky Branch Elementary School first grade teacher Claire Ashley said students at her school have been learning about cancer as they fundraise for Relay for Life. Henry Shepherd, an 11-year-old survivor of bone cancer, shared stories about his support system and how doctors gave him a titanium leg.

“Henry’s unbelievable outlook on life and his positive attitude make him such an incredible inspiration for the students,” said Ashley, who also asked Dr. Cynthia Shepherd, the first female oncologist in Athens, to speak to her students. Students then collected items to make care packages for patients at the University Cancer and Blood Center in Athens. 

For more on this story, see the Jan. 5 edition of The Oconee Enterprise, on sale now at convenience stores and grocery stores and newspaper boxes throughout Oconee County. To subscribe, go to oconeeenterprise.com or call (706) 769-5175.

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