For the past three years, Heather Henry has taught seventh grade math at New Hope Middle School. More specifically, she teaches pre-advanced-placement math, attracting the brightest, most ambitious students.
“She’s the best of the best,” said her principal, Sam Allison. “I don’t say that lightly, either. There are some teachers you can shut the door and not worry about. Heather is one of those teachers.”
Henry, 40, has taught 14 years, but this year stands apart because — on top of instructing students on the normal curriculum — she has been teaching something not found on any syllabus or course description.
In July, Henry was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had her first chemotherapy treatment a week before classes started in August.
But when Henry met with Allison to inform him of her condition, it wasn’t to ask for the year off, as might be expected.
“I knew from the beginning I wanted to keep working,” Henry said. “I really felt like the normalcy would help me progress through my treatment. I love my job. I didn’t want to sit around feeling sorry for myself.”
Henry said Allison was supportive of her decision, although he understood the challenge facing his star teacher. His sister-in-law had also suffered from breast cancer.
“I knew what she was about to go through,” Allison said. “I told her we would do whatever we needed to do to support her. (The treatment) makes you so sick. I told her that even if she could only be here two days a week, having her two days a week was better than not having her at all. She’s that good.”
Henry said her husband Dale and her family were sources of support and encouragement. No one tried to discourage her from continuing to teach as she battled cancer.
For the first three chemo treatments, Henry took two days off — on Wednesday, the day of her treatment, and the following Monday, which is when the effects of the treatment were most severe.
For the rest of her treatments, she took only Wednesday off.
In December, when she learned she would need a double-mastectomy, she was told the average recuperation time from the surgery was a month. Henry missed five days.
“She’s amazing,” Allison said. “For her to miss so few days, given what she was going through, would be unbelievable for anybody else. But she’s so driven. There were days I knew that she didn’t feel well — you could see it.”
And so could her students.
Henry told her students about her cancer on the first day of school, explaining what was to come and answering their questions.
“I was really honest with them,” she said. “Because it was breast cancer, I kept what I shared appropriate, but I really did try to answer all their questions. I told them chemo would alter my appearance, for example. I just wanted them to know ahead of time what to expect.”
Henry shaved her head before her hair fell out. She also bought a wig and had it cut and colored to match her old hairstyle.
But her students insisted she forget the wig.
“They all told me I looked pretty without it,” she said. “So I took their advice.”
‘She taught us how to be brave’
Henry is now in remission and her treatment consists now primarily of pills for maintenance.
Her hair is beginning to grow back in, too.
Throughout the process, her students, she said, have been “wonderful.”
“They worked hard, didn’t make excuses,” she said.
The students continue to progress in mastering their math skills.
Along the way, they are learning something Allison feels may be even more important.
“I think the biggest thing they saw was the way she fought,” Allison said. “Life is going to deal all of us some tough blows, so that’s important to see. I think they all gained respect for her.
“There aren’t many people in this world who won’t be touched by cancer in some way,” he added. “I think this is something that will affect these students for the rest of their lives, probably more so later than right now.”
Henry said she hoped sharing her journey with her students has removed some of the fear from the equation.
“For one thing, I think they learned that cancer is a manageable disease rather than a death sentence,” she said. “Maybe for them, it was good to see that something like cancer can be overcome. Maybe this teaches them not to give up on life.”
“She’s amazing,” said Cole Monohan, one of Henry’s students. “When she told us about her cancer, we were worried that she would just get sicker and sicker. But she was so positive about it.”
Monohan thought about the question for a moment.
“She taught us how to be brave,” he said.
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is email@example.com.