Sitting in the doctor’s office and hearing the word “cancer” is a situation that many people dread. It’s hard to know how you’ll cope with the initial shock, let alone the months of learning about the diagnosis and going through treatment. When Cheryl Fiedorczyk first learned she had multiple myeloma, she didn’t panic, cry, or get angry. Instead, she turned to her doctor, who had just handed her a pamphlet on her somewhat rare cancer, and asked, “OK what’s our game plan?”
As a veteran teacher, Cheryl is no stranger to tackling problems head on. She has worked in education for an incredible 35 years and says, “If I have a child in the classroom with a problem I have to come up with an action plan. It’s just what I do.” So, naturally, Cheryl’s teacher instincts kicked in when it came to her own health problem.
Ignorance is bliss
Cheryl first noticed her multiple myeloma symptoms when they started to affect a beloved routine. Cheryl volunteers as a dog walker at the local animal shelter. She especially loves helping at-risk dogs that haven’t been socialized or have been mistreated. Her goal is to try to help make them adoptable. It was after some of these therapeutic walks that Cheryl first started to notice signs that something was wrong.
“I had bruises on the side of my hand,” Cheryl recalls. “I thought it must be from where the dogs pull, so I bought a heavy pair of gloves to protect my hands to keep them from bruising.”
But Cheryl didn’t know that easy bruising is an early symptom of multiple myeloma, a cancer that is formed by malignant plasma cells in bone marrow. Other symptoms include bone pain and fractures, low blood counts (which can cause anemia, weakness, shortness of breath), sudden severe back pain, and muscle weakness.
Soon after, Cheryl began to experience more of these common symptoms. She would wake up feeling exhausted. When she walked across the street from her school to get lunch, she found herself dizzy, short of breath, and felt weak in her legs.
“I thought ‘I shouldn’t be this tired. I haven’t done anything yet.’ Later, people would ask me, ‘Didn’t you just know deep-down that something was wrong?’ No. I knew I didn’t feel well but I pushed it off. It was the end of a stressful school year. Never once did I think maybe this is something really bad,” reflects Cheryl.
Luckily, Cheryl’s fellow teachers encouraged her to see a doctor. She promised them she would go as soon as school was out.
“I was positive that state testing and end of the year strain had just run my health into the ground.”
Early Multiple Myeloma Diagnosis
That June Cheryl followed through on her promise and went to her General Practitioner who, after seeing Cheryl’s blood count, decided that a visit to a specialist was in order. Two oncologist visits later, she was given her diagnosis: multiple myeloma.
“I had never heard of it,” recalls Cheryl.
Despite having never heard of her condition, Cheryl wasn’t discouraged. She started reading everything she could get her hands on, especially information from trusted sources like the Cleveland Clinic and Mayo Clinic. It’s not unusual that Cheryl hadn’t heard of the disease. Considered a rare condition, the American Cancer society estimates that the lifetime risk of getting multiple myeloma is 1 in 143 in the United States. You have better chances of being audited by the IRS (1 in 100).
A Fighting Spirit
“As a teacher, I know that knowledge is power. The more I have, the more I’m going to understand, and the more power I will have to fight this cancer.”
In addition to scholarly resources on her condition, Cheryl also found myeloma groups on Facebook and the stories she discovered there encouraged and inspired her.
“I believe it’s the attitude,” asserts Cheryl. “The people who have had it for 20 years have a very specific attitude. They are not ready to leave this world. They think, ‘I can do it and I will do it.’”
Inspired by those who have gone before her, Cheryl started to fight and has relied on her teaching instincts to get keep going.
“My whole family has over 300 years in education. As a teacher, I do the work until the work gets done.”
For Cheryl, this means doing the work to fight the cancer while continuing to teach, despite how tough it gets. She says at times her family worries that she’s fighting too hard.
“My family’s instinct was to keep me safe. My daughter said, ‘You’re going to have to quit.’ But it’s the only thing I know I truly love. I could retire. Right now is not the time. The kids are my goal.”
“Everyone circled the wagons around me. That’s the power of sharing your story.” #cancerstoryClick to tweet
Fighting has also meant learning to pace herself, asking for help, and acknowledging when something can’t be done right away. Last year fellow teachers helped watch students after school when Cheryl needed to leave early for doctor appointments. This school year it’s meant asking friends for help with little things like hanging the alphabet over her blackboard.
The Power of Sharing Your Story
Cheryl has also turned to Facebook to rally support. When she finally decided to come out about her condition the message was simple and positive: “I have cancer and need prayer warriors to join my journey. My intention is to kick myeloma’s butt.”
This simple request had an immediate and profound effect. Over 200 people have responded to Cheryl’s post and many offer their support daily. She reflects, “Everyone circled the wagons around me. That’s the power of sharing your story.”