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School family supports teacher through treatment

By Racey Burden | Published Saturday, October 22, 2016
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Hugging It Out

HUGGING IT OUT – Chico Elementary School teacher and breast cancer survivor Debbie Spradlin hugs a former student at Chico’s pink-out pep rally held this month in Spradlin’s honor. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

Debbie Spradlin debated for some time whether to tell her first grade class she had cancer.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2014, Spradlin had a lumpectomy that June. She elected to take chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and she was in the midst of those treatments when school started again.

Spradlin wore a wig to work at Chico Elementary, one that matched her hair color and style before she’d lost it to chemotherapy. She didn’t have to tell her kids she was sick – they might not have ever noticed – but she prayed about whether she should.

She had a book about a mother explaining to her children she was sick and going to lose her hair. Spradlin brought it to the class on Hat Day and told them that she was going through something much like the mom in the book.

“Then I took the wig off, and I let them touch my head,” Spradlin said.

From the beginning, her students and the rest of her school family have been incredibly supportive, Spradlin said. Two years after her diagnosis and with her cancer in remission, the school still finds ways to show Spradlin love – from a special pink-out pep rally where they honored her whole family to a cheer the middle school cheerleaders made up just for her – “Who are we? The Dragons! Who do we love? Mrs. Spradlin!”

It’s that love – and the love of her family, friends and the rest of the community – that has uplifted Spradlin from her diagnosis until now.

“I had so many people praying for me everywhere,” she said. “Lots of prayers.”

Since her treatments took place during the school year, Spradlin occasionally had to miss class, but she was there more days than not. Her fellow teachers constantly checked in on her, and Principal Karen Decker “was like a mother hen.”

On the days when chemo made her feel so sick she had to stay home – which Spradlin said she hated – her husband, son and stepdaughter would watch over her. Her son, who Spradlin says isn’t typically very emotional, started hugging her every morning.

“They did so much for me,” Spradlin said. “I’m so stubborn. I didn’t want people waiting on me, but I would have to stay home and sleep the entire day.”

It helped that her doctors were close by, at the Cancer Center at Wise Health System. Spradlin said she used to drive by the center and think, “Lord, I hope I never have to go in there.”

Spradlin, whose mother died of brain cancer, always thought of a cancer diagnosis as the beginning of the end, something she now knows is untrue. During her treatment time, Spradlin talked to fellow teachers and a doctor at the Cancer Center who had all been diagnosed with breast cancer, and the shared experiences made her own struggle easier to bear than if she’d been totally on her own.

“It gave me strength to know that we could stand together, and we could do this together,” she said.

There are many more people Spradlin said helped her in a variety of ways – the couple who designed T-shirts in her honor, the karate academy her husband and son are in that hosted a benefit tournament for her – and she said she wished she could make the story of her journey from diagnosis to recovery about everyone except herself.

Spradlin is still recovering from the effects of her chemotherapy. She’s often tired and forgetful, but she’ll never forget the way everyone rallied around her when she needed it most.

Her advice to women going through cancer treatments? “Keep your head up and let your support system be your inspiration.”

Show of Support

SHOW OF SUPPORT – The Chico Middle School cheerleaders and Debbie Spradlin’s son, Lane, gave Spradlin a banner filled with loving notes from students. Spradlin is a breast cancer survivor, and Chico recently held a pink-out pep rally with the teacher as a guest of honor. Messenger Photo by Joe Duty

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