5 Lessons on Fighting Cancer from a Kindergarten Teacher

Breast cancer survivor Elaine Barber shares how lessons she taught to little ones apply to adults facing cancer

By Katie Ressler

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Though we may not have realized it at the time, childhood held many freedoms and taught us life-long lessons that can be harnessed to get through a cancer diagnosis and treatment.

After Elaine Barber started breast cancer treatment at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), Tulsa, she felt overwhelmed by her daily responsibilities and the changes that her cancer diagnosis brought. As a former kindergarten teacher, she now looks back and realizes that many of the lessons she taught to children were applicable to her cancer journey.

“Everything we learn in kindergarten really does apply to living a full, healthy and happy life,” Barber says.

Here are five kindergarten lessons she believes can help those facing cancer:

1. Be willing to learn something new.

Working with kindergarteners for many years, Barber notes that at that age, children are constantly learning new things. Things that seem simple to adults–getting along with others, playing nicely and sharing–often pose a great challenge to five-year-olds. She explains how her diagnosis required a willingness to learn how to live with cancer:

When I was diagnosed with cancer, I had to adjust my new environment and rethink everything I did, including learning new eating habits and quitting my teaching job to start treatments. Cancer not only threatens life itself, but also threatens how one lives. In a good way, cancer made me learn how to make purposeful living a priority!

2. Be patient with your body.

Kindergarteners aren’t known for patience, but Barber notes that for both teachers and students, patience is necessary to surviving a day in kindergarten. Despite teaching this lesson every day for many years, patience took a new meaning when she began cancer treatment.

Patience is key to surviving cancer. One of the most frustrating things I dealt with was my reaction to cancer treatments. Instead of the typical side effects of nausea and vomiting, I had no control over my emotions and would cry for days after receiving chemotherapy. Before cancer treatment, it wasn’t my norm to cry or feel depressed. I received counseling through the mind-body medicine department at CTCA® to learn how to cope with these emotions. Patience and rest were my keys to healing.

As time continues, my body has made miraculous recoveries. I continue to need patience with my body because it’s not the same: I react differently, am not as energetic and I tire quickly. However, I’ve learned to adjust by listening to my body.

3. Be kind to yourself.

As a teacher, Barber recalls continually reminding children to be kind to others and themselves. As an adult, she notes that the second part of that lesson – being kind to yourself – often gets ignored.

After my diagnosis, I had to learn how to truly love myself, forgive myself and accept myself. Acceptance was a big deal for me. I had to accept my cancer challenge and believe I could do it. Breast cancer challenged my femininity, and that was incredibly tough. After my first surgery, I couldn’t look at my breasts. With the physical scar came the revelation of other scars I had buried. I realized I never fully dealt with issues from my past.

In our society, the pressure to be beautiful is sometimes overwhelming. When I was going bald, I decided to have my hair shaved off completely. My beautician at CTCA suggested I shave my head into a mohawk; I thought it was a great idea! We took pictures of myself with a mohawk before she shaved off the rest. It made losing hair fun and felt so freeing. Shaving my head helped me realize beauty is only skin deep. Having hair did not define me!

4. Be respectful of your needs.

When she was surrounded by children, Barber was fully aware of how needy her students were. As a teacher, her students came first. Learning to accept help, rather than always being the provider, was a challenge, but ultimately allowed her to attend to her needs.

I loved receiving hugs, consoling tears and hearing their sweet cries of ‘I love you, Mrs. Barber!’. It was very fulfilling to help my students every day.

As a cancer patient, I felt very needy because I suddenly found myself divorced, jobless and unhealthy. It was overwhelming. God placed a man, now my fiancé, Rick, in my life, who was very supportive of me.  I learned to accept my needs and to trust and love again.

Many of my students’ families reached into my life and blessed me after learning I had cancer. I had countless former students and parents message me on Facebook to tell me how much I meant to them. Little acts of kindness overwhelmed me. I realized how much it meant to have someone reach into my circle to show they cared. Through cancer, I learned to accept the help and respect of others to help me meet my needs.

5. Allow fun in your life.

Kindergarten is the first experience with extended time away from parents for many kids. Every day is challenging because it’s all new. One of Barber’s rules for her students was to have fun. “If you can’t have fun in school, especially the very first year, then how can you expect a child to want to attend class for the rest of their educational career?” she explains. Similarly, getting through cancer, she suggests, requires allowing fun in your life.

Hearing my cancer diagnosis sucked the air out of me. I was clueless about cancer. It was scary! At first, I had a pity party, and that’s okay! Eventually, I realized having cancer didn’t mean I couldn’t have fun. I learned to laugh again. My sons, fiancé and other caregivers made me laugh. My former students brought joy to my life through cards and silliness. I learned how to laugh during the most painful moments. For example, the first time I had chemotherapy, I had a PICC line (a catheter for IV medications that can be used for a prolonged time) put in. For fun, I would dress it up and disguise it.

“Life should be about finding moments that make you laugh, even in the midst of some pretty dark times,” Barber says. “If I hadn’t found laughter again, I’m not sure I would still be here. Joy brings hope. With hope, all things are possible.”