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I Have Stage IV Lung Cancer But I Couldn’t Imagine Not Being in the Classroom

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Better Conversation cancer health Stephen Huff teacher health Teacher Voice Tennessee

I Have Stage IV Lung Cancer But I Couldn’t Imagine Not Being in the Classroom

I Have Stage IV Lung Cancer But I Couldn’t Imagine Not Being in the Classroom

I always thought I’d be a professional baseball player. It was everything that ever mattered to me—even if I couldn’t play, I knew I wanted to coach. In my early years of high school, I would volunteer at local baseball camps and recreational parks, and I realized rather quickly that I hated seeing kids fail to reach their potential. I would lie in bed at night reflecting on what I could have done or said differently to help them succeed.

Eventually achieving my personal goal of playing college and professional baseball, my career slowly but surely came to an end. When contemplating what to do next, I thought about some of the most influential people that I admired and respected—many of the names on my list were my former coaches and teachers. If I was going to teach, I knew I wanted to be the kind of teacher a student would someday remember as a positive figure. In the same way, I recognized several of mine.

After deciding to become an educator, I quickly fell into the trap of thinking “How hard can this be?”

Life Had Different Plans

I was surprised to find myself struggling through my first year of grading papers and lesson planning, and I was exhausted both mentally and physically. I contemplated resigning out of defeat, but my parents always instilled a high level of determination, so quitting wasn’t an option. As each day came to an exhausting end, I could envision summer vacation on the horizon. As I planned out my days, looking forward to sleeping in and vacations ahead, little did I know that a simple cough would change the course of my life forever.

As my first year of teaching finally came to an end, my journey with lung cancer was only beginning. Hunkering in a walk-in clinic on the day after my first graduation ceremony as a teacher was not the ideal start to my vacation. There is something very surreal about being handed a terminal diagnosis, as the denial was firmly intact in my head. How did I go from being the epitome of health, to fighting for my life?

However, I never find myself losing hope. Hope is a waking dream. Even against all the odds, against all logic, we can still hope. Confucius said, “Education breeds confidence. Confidence breeds hope. Hope breeds peace.”

I’ve learned more about myself over the last two years than I did in my first 29 years of existence, and as I cope with my diagnosis, I’ve revised the question from why me, to why not me? I don’t know what my future has in store—according to lung cancer survival statistics, the prognosis isn’t encouraging. So while I am here, why shouldn’t I dedicate my future to serving others as an educator, both inside and outside of the classroom?

At school, I’ve loved being able to spark imagination in our youth, and it’s given me a purpose each day. Out of the classroom, my diagnosis has turned me into an educator of the general public on the warning signs of my disease. Breaking the stigma is vital to me and education is the first step.

Education is our ticket to the future, and it’s what survives us when what’s learned, has been forgotten. Despite all of the treatments I’ve taken to fight my disease, teaching has been the most therapeutic. My students have given me purpose, and in the uncertain world that is cancer, having a purpose to move forward is paramount. The job of an educator is to teach students to see vitality in themselves, but maybe it’s also about seeing the vitality in ourselves as well.

On June 1, 2017, my life was turned upside-down, but as I’ve dredged through this arduous cancer journey for nearly two years now, I’m convinced that one of the highest human dignities we have is to provide the next generation with educational tools for success. That’s why I’m an educator and will continue to teach despite what obstacles I face in the future.

Photo courtesy of author.

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