Being a teacher in current times is considered to be the most stressful job there is. The workload is unreasonable, the behavior is unmanageable, and administration has ridiculous demands. Now imagine trying to handle all of that while you undergo aggressive treatment for cancer! I interviewed 6 teachers who are undergoing or have recently had treatment for cancer while continuing to teach. It is important to note that each teacher stressed to me that they needed to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation from administration.
Sick Music Teacher with Insane Schedule
A music teacher in Florida has been at the same school for 12 years. He teaches 6 classes a day, with different classes every other day, for a total of 12 classes with five different types of classes to prep for.
Lesson planning takes about 1-3 hours each day which does not include grading, which takes about 45 min per day and yet he does not have any free period to plan, prep, or grade. His teacher work day is 8:50- 4:20, and since lunch is 27 minutes long, he barely has time to eat.
This workload be too much for most teachers to keep up with, even if they were in great health. But this teacher has serious health issues. He has a primary immune disease which means he has a weakened immune system that leaves him at a higher risk of contracting viruses, infections, and other serious illnesses. He needs infusions of healthy antibodies every 3 weeks to give him some kind of immunity.
In 2020, this same teacher was in a car accident and had to have the right side of his face entirely reconstructed. Then, in May of 2022, his doctors found precancerous cysts and growths all over his organs and said it was due to stress.
His main concern is needing enough time to eat, drink, and rest. He has “zero time or relief during the school day, and the meds cause severe dehydration” but even if he had enough time to drink the proper amount of water, he wouldn’t have enough time to use the bathroom.
Despite all of the staff being aware of his condition, they never ask if he needs help. He is the only teacher in the arts department at that school who doesn’t have a planning period and they add students to his roster on a daily basis.
While he is part of a union, it is the same union that the administration, and non-instructional positions use and according to him, it is run by admin. and, “Teachers have zero voice.” He tried filing a grievance but the administration stopped it because they didn’t want the school board to know what was happening at the school.
The good news is that when I followed up with this teacher, he shared that he moved to another school where he has the proper support he needs to take care of his health.
Math Teacher with Breast Cancer
A math teacher in her forties, who has been teaching for 20 years (11 at her current school) was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer last April. She had to undergo 8 rounds of chemotherapy with the strongest chemo drugs there are. After that, she had a double mastectomy and is currently undergoing radiation treatment. She will then need to get her ovaries removed as well.
Her teacher work day always consisted of arriving at school at 5:30 AM, which gives her about 2 hours before the students come in to get planning and grading done. Yet her brain is foggier now because of the radiation and chemo, and she is needing to bring work home to complete at night and on weekends.
She does not have a union, and receives 10 sick days a year that can accumulate up to 50 sick days, and 2 personal days. However, her school has a policy that says that sick days cannot be used for doctors’ appointments, and her treatments are considered doctor’s appointments.
During radiation treatment, she had to go daily. Her colleagues and administration were very supportive when she was first diagnosed. “They were also very supportive when I was totally bald and looked sick. Now that my hair is starting to grow back, I find that they are less supportive.
When I was absent for my mastectomy, the administration officially wrote me up because my ‘lesson plans were not engaging enough and the students caused drama with each other.’ So while I was in the hospital recovering from surgery, and was not even present in the classroom, I wasn’t engaging enough. I asked my principal if he could please sit in on my class the next day to see who was causing the drama and he told me that was not his job.”
This teacher is struggling more than ever to find a balance between her home and work life, but she needs her job and insurance to support herself and her two small children. When I asked her if there was anything else about her story she wanted to share, she said, “I do not think my story is special and I do not believe I am special. This just shows how the administration is lacking in supporting teachers.
It also breaks my heart that others were so supportive when I was visibly sick yet as I try to appear healthier by getting eyebrow tattoos and fake eyelashes, they are less sympathetic. One colleague actually said, ‘I’ve heard enough about you having cancer. You always tell us about it when you leave meetings early, and it is not fair to the rest of us.’
I am finding that others do not genuinely want to hear how things are going. They would rather pretend that my cancer doesn’t exist. But it exists whether it makes them uncomfortable or not, and their lack of support makes the situation much more stressful.”
Special Education Teacher with Thyroid Cancer
At the beginning of her career, “Mrs. A” was hired as the only Special Education teacher for a school of approximately 500 students. She was hired under a mild/moderate credential which means she was trained to conduct assessments, provide instruction, and special education related services to students with a mild/moderate intellectual disability, or other health impairment.
Two months into her employment, the Special Ed. department informed Mrs. A that she would need to obtain a moderate/severe credential in order to retain my employment at her own expense. Since teaching positions were hard to come by in 2008, she went through with getting the new credentials. She didn’t realize at the time that this was a violation of her contract and a completely unreasonable and ridiculous request. This enabled her school to operate with only one Special Ed. teacher when they really needed two.
For years she worked an unreasonable caseload, did all IEPs, all SSTs, managed 10+ paraeducators, and dealt with severe behaviors. She repeatedly begged for additional support but was told by the district that this was out of the question.
In 2104, her body broke down from the repetitive stress and she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. When she returned from one month of sick leave for major surgery, she was reprimanded for not reporting her absences correctly online. That was the only communication that administration had with her the week she came back from battling a life threatening illness. There were no check-ins and no concern for her welfare.
A year after her surgery, Mrs. A was informed via email that she was being reassigned to a new site at the junior high level. She had never taught at the junior high level so she filed a grievance with her union and submitted a doctor’s note stipulating that she shouldn’t have a new and unnecessarily stressful work situation while undergoing cancer treatment. They didn’t move her but the following year, they tried to reassign her again.
She hired an attorney, endured mediation, and submitted another doctor’s note. The district responded by offering a split position at two different elementary sites and threatened insubordination if she did not accept the assignment. When she objected, stating that this was far more stressful and that she could not take this on while trying to fight cancer, the HR director told her that “her only value to the district was the work that they could extract out of me (her).”
Mrs. A consulted with a private attorney at $300 an hour who told her that she had a solid case for harassment and ADA rights violations (cancer can be a federally recognized disability in certain circumstances). But due to the $10,0000 retainer, she couldn’t pursue legal recourse.
Mrs. A wholeheartedly believes that stress caused her condition. Thyroid cancer does not run in her family and she never had health issues before teaching. She recommends the book Mind Over Medicine by Lisa Rankin and comments on how the book says work can cause serious health issues and that some health conditions, such as cancer and thyroid conditions, can be directly related to repetitive stress. She is “desperate to leave public school and thoroughly embarrassed that I haven’t done so already after all I have endured.”
Pregnant Teacher with Brain Cancer
At the end of her second year of teaching high school, “Mrs. B” found out she had a brain tumor, while she was pregnant. She had to have her baby prematurely in order to have life saving brain surgery at the end of the summer. The surgery was scheduled for the first day of the new school year. A substitute taught Mrs. B’s classes while she had a c-section and brain surgery. She was told if she didn’t come back to work in 5 weeks, she would be replaced.
Apparently, she wasn’t eligible for maternity leave because she had the baby in the summer and was not under contract. (They pink-slipped teachers without tenure every June and rehired them every September.) She did not want to lose her job, so she actually went back to work after five weeks to show that she didn’t want to lose her job.
When she returned, she found that they had kicked her out of her former classroom and let her sub move in permanently. They gave Mrs. B an extra three classes and made her a roving teacher, meaning each class was taught in a different room and all of her things were on a cart. At the end of the year, they said there weren’t enough classes for her the following year yet the sub was hired and still works to this day.
Teacher with Cancer Surplused
After teaching elementary school for 20 years, “Ms. C” was diagnosed with breast cancer. To avoid taking too much time off from work, Ms. C took a year off for surgeries and chemotherapy. She looked forward to an email from the principal about her grade-level assignment for the following year since she made her intentions to return very clear. Since all of her friends/colleagues had received their assignments via email, Ms. C emailed the principal, and the response was merely to contact HR.
When she called HR, they “pulled an obscure piece out of our MOU (an agreement that serves as an addendum to a collective bargaining agreement) stating if an employee missed a year or more of work, they lose their position at their school and go into the ‘surplus teacher pool.’ Teachers in the pool get to choose their school according to their level of seniority.
I knew of 2 other teachers who were gone for a year or more due to health concerns, and neither lost their positions. I also researched ADA about cancer patients returning to work, and I called my union, who pled my case with the superintendent. They finally agreed to let me at my school. I felt completely unsupported by my principal as she initiated the surplus teacher move.
This is classic unsupportive admin! Way to screw with the weak, newly bald teacher who is just returning to work!”
Stress that Caused Amputation
After 12 years, “Ms. D” stopped teaching for public school after her spouse was injured in combat. After using her accrued personal and sick time to attend to him in the hospital, the superintendent tried to build a case to fire her because she was “neglecting her contractual duties” even though it was accrued time per her contract and covered under FMLA. After that particular experience, Ms. D had sought something better, so she started teaching at a Waldorf school.
After two years at the Waldorf school, Ms. D was diagnosed with a blood disease and was experiencing clotting in one of her legs. The doctors had been trying to find a way to control it but were struggling to do so. Consequently, it was difficult to walk long distances (she couldn’t walk the students 1.5 miles to the public library anymore), and it was excruciating because she had bone decay and tissue death in her foot. While her condition didn’t make it impossible to teach, she merely needed a few accommodations to ensure she wouldn’t have to walk as much.
She had emergency surgery twice that year to save her leg and avoid amputation, as well as chemotherapy and a week-long trip to the Mayo Clinic. According to Ms. D, “The families at the school were amazing, and I would always look forward to students and their families coming to see me in the hospital during my recovery.”
She had just come back after an emergency surgery when she was fired. “It was my first day back after several days in the ICU. They waited until my students were in specials at the end of the day to have the conversation with me, handing me a letter and telling me it was effective immediately. They did not even allow me to say goodbye to my students or give them any sense of closure. Having my principal sit in front of me and tell me that I ‘lacked the ability to make decisions for myself about how to be well’ was infuriating, and I felt completely blindsided.
The most bewildering part was when I went back on the weekend to collect my personal belonging, the person who was selected to substitute for me for the remainder of the school year went ballistic on me because she expected me to leave my possessions for her to use. The principal actually contacted me to say that I had to leave my things there because they had promised the sub she could have all of my things at her disposal to teach with. Again, these were items I had purchased with my own money.”
After they fired her, the stress sent her condition into overdrive and she ended up back in the ICU within days, needing several emergency surgeries, 5 rounds of plasmapheresis, and finally, an amputation because of the damage caused by clotting.
Ms. D appealed to the school board and asked for their help. After a few weeks of investigation, they fired the principal but declined to reinstate her. By the time that was done, she was “barely alive in the ICU” and unable to even lift her head off the pillow or stay conscious.
As the math teacher who fought breast cancer said, these stories are not unusual. They just show how administration and the country in general is severely lacking in supporting teachers, particularly when they are battling a serious illness.
Do you have a similar story you would like to share? You can vent about it anonymously, or create a secret here.