By Dina Martin
Breast Cancer Survivor and Modoc Teachers Association member Patti Perkins Carpenter at a community golf tournament that benefited the American Cancer Society.
October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. Remember to schedule a mammogram.
Breast cancer provided Modoc County teacher Patti Perkins Carpenter with plenty of lessons for her students over the past school year — not the least of which was that if this ever happens to them, it is something they can live through.
That's exactly what Carpenter is doing nearly a year after receiving her breast cancer diagnosis last September, the day before Back to School Night at State Line Elementary School in New Pine Creek in rural Modoc County.
During the last school year, Carpenter underwent surgery, chemotherapy and radiation, and often commuted 240 miles to the nearest cancer center in Klamath Falls, Ore., for treatment. Especially tough for her were the four weeks of radiation treatment, which required her to make the five-hour round-trip commute over mountain roads each day. Yet Carpenter also managed to keep up with the progress of her students and even resumed her full-time teaching duties in the spring, just in time to take the entire school of 25 K-8 students on a weeklong Outdoor Education trip to Sacramento and the foothills.
"That trip was one of my treatment goals," says Carpenter. "A lot of these kids never get to the city, so we go every three years to Sacramento. It was fantastic! I made it!"
As one of two teachers in the two-room rural school, Carpenter worked with long-term substitute teachers for the year, but made frequent visits to the classroom where she led reading circles, wrote lesson plans, graded papers and met with parents for conferencing. She also wrote periodic e-mails to parents and friends that detailed her journey through diagnosis, treatment and recovery. In such a small, tight-knit community, she received as much care and attention as she gave. Students and parents showered her with cards, letters, pictures and gas money, and were taught a lesson in empathy and compassion along the way.
"The day before I headed to my first chemotherapy, one of my eighth-grade boys who doesn't usually show much emotion gave me a big hug and told me he'd be thinking of me. It was pretty touching," she says.
Later, when she lost her hair and her eyebrows and eyelashes due to the side effects of the chemo and she started wearing scarves, the kids learned to joke with her that she looked like a pirate or fortune teller. She remembers attending the school's Spring Fling Week, which allowed her to go back to school in her pj's on Pajama Day, and paint a face on the back of her bald head for "Backwards Day."
"If you can't laugh, it makes it a lot harder," says Carpenter. "For me, joking with the kids was my touch with reality and normalcy. It was a big thing."
Now, three months out of treatment, Carpenter is on the road to recovery. She has regained her energy and is walking 12 miles a week. In August, she worked with the Modoc Teachers Association on a community golf tournament that benefited the American Cancer Society and the Modoc County Breast Cancer Support Group, which provides support as well as expenses for women to travel out of the county to receive mammograms.
"We talked about hosting a golf tournament two years ago to build camaraderie and community support," she says. "Now it's turned into a fund-raiser for the support group, which is near and dear to my heart."