When Barabra Gerson, a math teacher at Commack High School, was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, she knew she was about to embark on a difficult journey. What she didn’t know was that her students, colleagues, family and friends would be fighting right along with her.
At the same time she received her diagnosis, Gerson’s husband just started a new job and she was helping her newly engaged daughter plan a wedding. “When the doctor said the word, cancer, I fell apart,” she told an audience of supporters during the school’s Relay for Life Kickoff event last week.
“The hardest part is watching those who love you worry about you,” she said.
Gerson, however, was one of the lucky ones. Her cancer was curable. She had an aggressive cancer, but one that would respond well to chemotherapy, she said.
Soon after being told of her diagnosis, she shared the news with the head of the math department, Bruce Leon.
“I still wanted to work. I needed to work. I didn’t want to just leave my students. Bruce would cover my classes if I needed to take time off. It was a team effort.”
That team spirit would soon be showcased by the entire department.
The day before her first chemotherapy treatment, Gerson walked into class to find the entire math department dressed in pink, including the men who sported pink ties. The following month, she walked into a classroom, filled with pink balloons. Another time, her colleagues all wore a hat similar to one she wore to cover her head.
“The support helped me get through,” she said. "I was fighting cancer. My department was fighting with me. In fact, the whole school was fighting with me," she said.
She went on to talk about the support she received from her students. “I learned that 17- and 18-year-olds are pretty awesome people,” she said. "Their concern was overwhelming. If they were sick, they would sit in the back of the room. They were put on wig patrol. They would tell me if my wig was crooked, falling off. They were just absolutely wonderful.”
Gerson underwent six rounds of chemotherapy, 28 doses of radiation and surgery.
“My colleges and students sent cards, flowers and gifts. On days when I couldn’t even get up to shower, I held all of these very close to me. I held the blanket that a student had given me, the quilt a friend had sewn for me, a stuffed animal that the class had given me and thought about all the people who loved me and helped me realize that this is just a bump in the road. I had been dealt a hand and how I played it was up to me. “
“I was going to win, I was going to beat cancer,” she said.
After being out of class for a month following a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery, she returned to find a warm surprise from her students.
“I’ll never forget the day I returned to find 28 HLBC calculus students, mainly male, all wearing pink breast cancer calculus T-shirts that they had designed and bought. Let me tell you, that’s something I will never, ever forget,” she said.
Now cancer free, Gerson serves as an inspiration to others. She will be walking alongside those in the Commack community during the high school’s Relay for Life event this spring.
“What has cancer taught me? It taught me to wake up and say thank you every day,” she said.