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Valpo middle school teacher shares cancer diagnosis, treatment

Valpo middle school teacher shares cancer diagnosis, treatment

When asked to speak at Northwest Health’s Annual Blow Away Breast Cancer event Thursday afternoon, Thomas Jefferson Middle School teacher Cheryl Highlan couldn’t resist the teachable moment. The sixth grade teacher, who continued teaching throughout her treatment, gave those gathered four Rs for getting through breast cancer in one year.

The one-year breast cancer survivor was diagnosed with grade II ductal carcinoma in the summer of 2021. She was determined, as the new school year was about to begin, to teach through her treatment, and be loud and proud about her diagnosis.

“Part of my journey was I was not going to be embarrassed,” she told the crowd gathered in the hospital’s main lobby.

One year breast cancer survivor Cheryl Highlan, of Valparaiso, addresses a crowd in the lobby of Northwest Health-Porter during its annual Blow Away Breast Cancer event Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023.

She decided she would wait to begin treatment until her students could meet her. “I’m not going to do anything until the school year starts so they know me as me,” she recalled planning.

“My cancer was kind of aggressive. I had to tell my students I was going to lose my hair. I was going to talk to my students about Lester — I named my lump. ‘Lester has to go, guys.’”

Before introducing her, Northwest Health’s Interim CEO James Leonard gave the crowd breast cancer statistics for the United States. One in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime. Annually, 240,000 women and 4,000 men are diagnosed with breast cancer. “We clearly have a long way to go,” he said.

Highlan said it was just 15 days from a mammogram that returned questionable findings to the beginning of treatment at Northwest Health in Valparaiso. “What stands out for me from that biopsy was the nurse, and it could have been any of you, who sat and held my hand through the whole thing, and it was huge,” she said.

She praised the hospital staff for the speed with which her cancer was flagged and treated, and also said how important the LiveStrong program at the Valparaiso YMCA had been to her recovery. But before talking about her four Rs, she mentioned a fifth. “If we didn’t talk about recurrence, it would be like a pink elephant in the room,” she said, recounting how the subject came up in class with her students.

Megan Senart, RN case manager at Northwest Health-Porter, right, and Donna Mills, unit secretary, plant pink pinwheels in the landscaping outside the hospital Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023, as part of the hospital's annual Blow Away Breast Cancer event

One of them had asked why so many people were wearing pink and Highlan explained it was in support of her speech about breast cancer. One boy spoke up and said his aunt had breast cancer. Highlan asked if she was a survivor. “No. She died,” he replied.

“And that’s the truth of it too,” she told the crowd before launching into her four Rs. Be realistic. Refuse to be a victim. Be responsible for your health. Reach out for help.

Then she added one more R. “I don’t call myself a warrior. I don’t call myself a fighter. I’m more of a Rottweiler.”

And as her teaching didn’t stop during her treatment, Highlan is still committed to teaching anyone going through breast cancer. “If you ever know of anyone who’s struggling” with breast cancer, she said, “remember my name. I would love to help them.”

Shelley Jones is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.