By Karen Mahoney
Special to Your Catholic Herald
A teacher, who generally inspires the lives of her students, is now the one being inspired.
After she was diagnosed with breast cancer in late July, St. Matthias School students, staff and parents are finding clever ways to show support and raise money on behalf of their much-loved teacher, Connie Michaud.
“She means a lot to us,” said seventh grade student Mary Sullivan who had Michaud as a teacher last year. “She was such a great teacher, fun and outgoing, and when we heard about her cancer, we all felt so bad.”
This summer, just before she was to begin her third year teaching sixth grade at St. Matthias, Michaud, 47, received the results of her routine mammogram, and unlike other screenings, this outcome was jarring.
“I was waiting for the usual letter indicating my results were clear, but instead of a letter, I received a phone call,” she said. “After two biopsies, I was told that I had cancer on both sides and needed a double mastectomy.”
Genetic testing indicated that Michaud carries the BRCA gene mutation, which carries an 87 percent chance of breast cancer. Because the hormones are carried through her ovaries, she will also have surgery to remove them to decrease her odds of recurrence.
“My family members are all scrambling now to get genetically tested to see if they have this gene, too, so they can decide what they want to do down the road,” she said, adding, “And later on, my daughters, ages 13 and 15, will also need to get tested, as they have a one in two chance of carrying this gene.”
After just three weeks in the classroom with her students, Michaud underwent the double mastectomy and is currently undergoing four months of chemotherapy. While she has hopes of teaching in between the bi-weekly treatments, she isn’t certain her oncologist will agree.
“They are concerned about the risk of infection and these treatments will be going right through the winter months,” she said. “But I do fantasize about having some good days and maybe I will hold up well enough to at least teach part time.”
Following her initial diagnosis, Michaud sent a letter to her students and families letting them know about her upcoming surgery and treatment.
“I told them honestly what was happening with me and when my surgery was supposed to be,” she said. “I wanted them to have all the correct information and to hear it from me so they wouldn’t be as frightened.”
While she was grateful for the first three weeks getting to know her students, Michaud left the first day feeling as if she had done the students a disservice by showing up for class.
“I just went home and cried because I really thought they didn’t deserve this,” she said, adding, “but it was a good three weeks and I was glad to help get the new school year rolling with business as usual.”
Behind the scenes, students, teachers and parents began planning ways to help Michaud and other cancer victims. Eager to show love and support, St Matthias students participated in the Susan G. Komen Foundation Race for the Cure on Sept. 28, raising more than $1,000 on behalf of Michaud.
According to Kris Post, school parent and secretary, students wanted to show their support in other ways as well. Under the guidance of teachers and staff, Pink Week was launched Sept. 22 to increase awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research.
“Our library hosted ‘Guess for the Cure,’ which gave each student the opportunity to guess the number of pink M&Ms in a jar,” she said. “‘Bake for a Cure’ was a student- sponsored bake sale to raise spare change for the Susan G. Komen Foundation, and ‘Dress for a Cure’ offered students and staff the opportunity to come to school out of uniform for $1. And ‘Prayers for a Cure’ encouraged all students to make cards and send best wishes to Mrs. Michaud for a speedy recovery. Students also posted pink signs and pink balloons throughout the school to remind us of our purpose.”
Participating in the weeklong events, including the Race for the Cure, gave Sullivan an opportunity to feel less helpless about Michaud’s cancer.
“I just wanted to find some way to support her and doing the walk was a good way because not only did we raise $1,000 for cancer, but I was able to think about her during the whole 5K walk,” she said. “It also made me feel good to buy from the bake sale and participate in the other fund-raisers. I really think our efforts will help to cure cancer because there are lots of people that want it to happen and if you are dedicated, you can do it.”
Sullivan’s feelings were a common theme throughout the school, admitted Post, who credits Michaud’s willingness to share her illness with the students’ desire to help.
“Everyone was just compelled to do something special to show her that they supported her,” Post said.
The tokens of affection have left Michaud with the feeling of love, appreciation and surprise.
“I was blown away; it just meant to much to me and I was and am still so touched,” she said. “Then these kids snowballed their efforts and came up with that week of activities – I think the most meaningful for me was the huge bag of cards from the kids throughout the entire school. It took me hours to go through and read every one; I will never throw these away. I was so impressed with everything they did and their thoughtfulness. Some of those cards were really cute.”
Michaud hopes she will be well enough to attend an honors assembly on Nov. 18 at St. Matthias. Students will present the executive director of the Susan G. Komen Foundation with the check for the money raised.
While the battle with cancer is difficult, the thoughts, prayers and gestures of the St. Matthias School community are giving Michaud strength and carry her through the most painful days.
“Someone said to me, ‘You are taking this so well; you seem so calm and seem so fine,'” she admitted. “I said ‘I know, I don’t really quite understand why I feel so good,’ and someone said, ‘It is probably because you are letting us carry you now.’ I think that is true, as well as it is my faith in God that sustains me.”
A favorite verse from the Book of Psalms comforts Michaud.
“I love the verse, ‘Be still and know that I am God’ and that brings a lot of calm to me,” she said. “I also look for Jesus in other people and throughout this whole experience I have seen that God is there. All these people who have rallied around me has been amazing, it goes beyond the school to friends, families and it has been huge.”
The future looks promising for Michaud, with doctors giving her an 85 percent survival rate. For Post that is a clear sign that she will beat the cancer and return to her classroom.
“She is most certainly a fighter,” Post admitted. “We have walked with Connie through her diagnosis and treatment plan. We have cried together and we’ve laughed together. She is an amazing woman and by sharing her journey, we have all learned so much from her.”
The prayerful support, love, kindness and good medical care keep Michaud grounded and positive that she will soon change her diagnosis from cancer victim to cancer survivor.
“There is no reason to doubt that I will have a good story,” she said. “I have every confidence in my doctors, my numbers look good and I will do what they tell me to do, to cooperate and get better. I do believe that I am going to lick this.”