We all piled into the school gym wearing our new, originally designed t-shirts, made in our school colors, teal and white. The sound system was on, the bleachers were down and the photographer was set up and snapping away.
Only, this was not an average pep rally. This one was special. This one was for Ms. Susi. Jennie Susi has stage four ovarian cancer.
According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer in women, partially because the symptoms are so common to other illnesses -- they include swelling or bloating and pain in the belly— that it often goes undiagnosed far too long. It’s something that Jennie knows from firsthand experience. Four different doctors told her that she was fine. It was the fifth doctor who finally diagnosed her cancer. He instructed her to get her affairs in order because she’d have, at most, two years left to live.
That was seven and a half years ago.
Jennie decided that “statistics are just statistics. I’m going to be one of the positive statistics.” And in so many ways, she is. She has fought this disease and undergone several surgeries, chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment.
And cancer is not the only hardship she’s faced. Her husband has multiple sclerosis. Her parents both passed away, within a year of one another. Each of these alone is enough to break someone’s spirit. But not Jennie. Through it all, she’s never lost her zeal for life.
“People always ask me ‘How do you do it?’” she says. “And of course, there are days and times when I’m upset, but what good is that going to do? How is that going to help me?” So in her weakest moments, she allows herself a “one-hour pity party.” Then, she chooses to get up and look on the bright side.
Jennie credits her family for her inherent optimism. Her parents taught her to be positive, and her brother taught her how to be happy.
“I have an older brother who has Down syndrome and he’s just so happy, and pure in his joy. He was my greatest teacher. I try not to be wasteful of the gift I’ve been given – the gift of life. His purity radiates to me so I can be happy with my life, just the way it is.”
These are the lessons that she brings into the classroom. She went to school on the days that she was scheduled for chemotherapy and – if she was able to pull herself out of bed – was back at school the next morning.
So when Jennie didn’t come back to school, it was difficult for her students, friends and colleagues. Doctors found more tumors and she had to have surgery to remove them and resection her colon, forcing her to take a leave of absence.
But even then, she did not forget her students. She assured them that she was okay and would “stay calm and chemo on.”
When her students created a design for her catch-phrase, “Stay calm – chemo on,” the school activities director, Helena Castro, had an idea. She had the design printed on t-shirts. Teal and white, our school colors, are also the colors for ovarian cancer awareness. She also included #teamjenniesusi, the hashtag trending on Twitter while Jennie was in surgery.
Hundreds of shirts were purchased and all of the proceeds went to the Ovarian Cancer Society. Then, once Jennie was well enough, the school surprised her with a pep rally in her honor. She walked into the gym to find us all wearing shirts with her slogan.
“Too often we honor and immortalize posthumously,” said Castro. “Jennie lives life fully and demonstrates compassion and resiliency and it is that zest for life that has served as a source of hope and inspiration to so many.”
Not only does Jennie get up and fight every day; she finds the time, the will and the energy to also fight for others.
Neyda Borges, a University of Miami graduate, lives and works in Miami Lakes, where she teaches English and journalism at Miami Lakes Educational Center. She is the Language Arts Department chair, The Silver Knights Coordinator, and advises the school's newspaper and yearbook. Borges was selected the Region I Teacher of the Year in 2011 and was one of the five finalists for the county's Teacher of the Year.