Tuesday, May 14, 2013
What do the Alston Middle School 2012 Rookie Teacher of the Year Peter Collins and Teacher of the Year Megan Linton have in common?
Well, 13-year-old William Brown and 14-year-old Allen Fields have nothing but good things to say about them.
“Both of them teach you in a way that you will understand it,” says Fields.
“Miss Linton is a really good teacher, I hated math,” adds Brown.
And both agree that “it is really awesome that they have the nerve to come in every day.”
An odd statement to make about a teacher.
So what else do these team teachers have in common?
They both have cancer.
Linton, 28, has Stage 3B Melanoma and Collins, 25, has Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
“It makes you think about everything,” says Fields noting that he looks at everyone through different eyes now. “It makes you not take anything or anyone for granted.”
The boys are wearing orange yarn about their wrists and have spent the week getting the rest of the student body to wear an orange yarn wristband. Monday May 6 was national Melanoma Awareness Day says eighth grade Assistant Principal Robert King, displaying his orange wristband.
King and the staff at Alston Middle School are busy planning a spaghetti dinner May 23 from 4:30 to 6:15 p.m., in the Ashley Ridge High School cafeteria, to raise money for these two highly respected and much loved teachers.
“They have gone through all the standard treatments,” says King, “and now they are at the point where they need to try something else.”
The something else is taking part in clinical trials. But because clinical trials are experimental in nature, insurance won’t cover them.
So, King says, the school community is trying to raise money through the dinner to help Collins and Linton offset the cost of a potentially successful treatment.
“The best thing about them,” says Principal Thad Schmenk, “is when you meet both Peter and Megan you know, within 10 seconds, that they are special people, remarkable teachers and just caring human beings.
“Both have significantly inspired both the teachers and students here – it’s uplifting to see two people take on cancer with such a positive outlook and optimism … it’s humbling.”
Linton is single but has a very supportive family, she says.
“In fact, if it wasn’t for my parents,” her voice trails off. “I had to move back in with them when I was so sick,” she says. “They have helped me financially, emotionally…anything I can possibly name. They helped me get back on my feet.”
She is back in her own home at the moment.
Linton admits that although she would never wish cancer on anyone, having someone else close to her age going through the same thing has been a sort of lifeline as they each can truly understand what the other is going through.
They are on the same team and teach right next door to each other.
Linton was diagnosed a year ago March. She says she knew little about melanoma. “I thought I could have surgery and carry on.”
But her melanoma was very invasive, very deep. She has had a skin graft on her forearm and spent all of last summer taking high-dose Interferon. When the time came for the school year to begin, she switched to low-dose Interferon. However, she says, the side effects are like having a very bad flu.
“I couldn’t teach,” she says, “so I had a choice…go on disability or get off Interferon.” Linton explains that Interferon offers a 4 percent increase in keeping Melanoma away but no increase in survival rate.
“I chose to keep teaching.”
She is now looking into clinical trials that she might take part in over summer vacation. Linton is looking at Sloan Kettering, Johns Hopkins and Moffit Cancer Center.
However, because she has been treated with Interferon, some trials may be closed to her.
Linton says she has leaned heavily on both her family and her school family.
“I can’t imagine being anywhere else – anything I could possibly need, no questions asked…” these families come through.
“The administration is fully supportive,” she says, “and the kids are amazing.”
“In the beginning, when I was very sick, Mr. King told them [the students] what was going on. My students have helped me be so much stronger…I am so thankful to be here.”
“I get letters weekly from kids,” she says, chuckling, “and from eighth graders that’s pretty amazing.”
Linton says the students don’t ask her a lot of questions about her illness but, instead, ask other teachers and the school nurse, Nurse Natalie.
“They come to me for more emotional things than they used to though…something going on in their life…and they probably work harder.”
“Me and Miss Linton talk about personal stuff,” says Brown, “and she helps me with problems.”
“I work harder, too, so as not to disappoint Miss. Linton.”
“I feel sorry for them,” adds Fields, “they try their hardest every day … they always work so I try not to give them a hard time.”
“Yeah, I always had an attitude,” Fields chimes in, “but I try not to in their classes.”
Natalie Hilton, school nurse and close friend of Linton’s, is also her spokesperson, meaning Linton has given her permission to talk about her illness with students, staff and parents.
“It has been overwhelming for Megan,” says Hilton, who took on the responsibility of notifying the staff of Linton’s illness and answering questions.
“The kids and I sort of process this together.”
“She’s [Linton] really tough and she teaches the toughest kids in the eighth grade but she has the best classroom management…because it comes from a place of love and the kids know it.”
Because of that affection, says Hilton, her illness means something to the kids. “They will Google it and then come in and says ‘Nurse Natalie, it’s really bad… .’”
At 22, Collins received his cancer diagnosis.
At the time, he was a student teacher at Alston Middle School.
“I lost 30 pounds so I went and got checked, had surgeries to do biopsies.
Hodgkin’s Lymphoma affects the lymph nodes, he explains. In his case, a mass the size of a football was discovered around his heart. “It was so big it put pressure on my lungs,” Collins explains. “My wife, Megan, made me go to the doctors. I had a PET scan, began chemo…the first round stopped working so I was put on a different kind of drug.”
Eventually he tried a stem cell transplant and radiation.
“I owe my life to her and she is my rock.
“I got hired [at Alston] that summer in the middle of treatment,” Collins relates, shaking his head. “I would go to treatments at night so I could teach during the day.”
Collins explains that the day after chemo was not so bad, that it was the second and third days that were worse so he scheduled his treatments for a Thursday, teach Friday and be very sick over the weekend but better in time for school on Monday.
Last December, over Christmas vacation, he had the stem cell transplant.
Using his own stem cells – a process called an autologous stem cell transplant – he was hospitalized for two – three weeks. The process harvests stem cells, which are part of the immune system, from the blood
“I am so blessed to have my wife with me,” he says, “and, she’s a nurse.”
Collins says he and his wife have been able to have jokes and laughs about the process.
“I went back to school on January 2. From February to April I had radiation every day after school.” Collins would drive each day to West Ashley for a 30-minute radiation treatment.
Collins plays and coaches lacrosse at a local club and loves it. However, the radiation and chemo has given him what he calls sports induced asthma so he has to carry an inhaler and this inhibits his playing.
Following the radiation regimen he has been in remission from April 2012 until two weeks ago.
A CAT Scan has revealed a small mass in his lung. A lung biopsy, a week and a half ago, has confirmed that the Hodgkin’s is back.
“The cure/remission rate for first time Hodgkin’s is 85 to 90 percent,” says Collins. “It dramatically drops if it comes back and there is no specific treatment. Further, his own stem cells have been compromised by chemo and radiation, which can destroy bone marrow.
So, aside from clinical trials, Collins has only a few options for this second round of cancer.
“There is a new drug – Brentuximab (SGN 35) which is almost like chemo but attacks only cancer cells so has fewer side effects,” he explains. “It just came out two years ago and is having a very good success rate…but because it has only been used for two years no one knows for how long… .”
“My doctor recommended a second opinion so my wife and I flew to New York to Sloan Kettering, which has a Hodgkin’s specialist. “He recommended to go with the drug so I am starting Tuesday here in Charleston. We are going to start with just the drug for three months and see if the PET Scan shows it is cured or if I will need another stem cell transplant.”
Another stem cell transplant would have to be an allogeneic stem cell transplant (from donor cells). “In fact,” he says, “I am going to ask my siblings this weekend if they would be willing to be tested – there is a 25 percent chance they will be a match. If not, I will go on a list for a match.”
If none of this works, then his only option will be clinical trials.
If he has to go the allogeneic stem cell route, he will be in and out of the hospital for about a year, he says, because the body reacts to donor cells the same as it would for an organ transplant. Worse, he can’t get the transplant locally so he and his wife would have to move to one of three areas where he could get the treatment – California, Texas or, possibly, Charlotte, NC.
Collins says that although just four days before he was originally diagnosed, he and his wife bought a house, his mom has always instilled in him to “save, save, save.”
“So I am cheap and I have saved,” he laughs.
He is far more concerned about Linton and thinks the fundraising dinner will help her so much.
“My kids [students] know a lot [about his illness] and I try to be as open as possible.
Both Collins and Linton use their illness as part of their lessons and most of their students have both of them as teachers.
“I used photos of me bald when I was teaching electro-magnetic fields and applying that to the treatment of cancer cells.
“I teach about UV rays and how they can cause cancer…it is so preventable… .”
Linton teaches her students to protect themselves from the sun and the dangers of tanning booths.
“I’ve learned it is a very bad disease and you can die from it,” says Brown. “I try and stay out of the sun and tell my mom to stop going to the tanning booth…but she doesn’t listen to me.”
King is devastated by his teachers’ illnesses. “Both are in advanced stages,” he says, “and they are so young…in their twenties, it’s tearing us up as a faculty...these two, they were born to teach, they are phenomenal teachers.
“The PASS test, the students in their classes excel!
“We feel we gotta do something and help them…we really care about them.”
So King decided to put on a benefit dinner and he is amazed and excited by the interest being shown not just within the Alston community but throughout the school district.
“The whole district is getting involved,” he says, “and I think this could turn into a major fundraiser.”
Publix has donated the pasta, Jim Brantley, manager, Atlanta Bread Company (which is a business sponsor for Alston Middle School), has come forward “big time” and is donating bread, desserts and drinks. Italian Ice is donating ice cream. Teachers are chipping in for supplies. Staff have volunteered to cook the meal, custodial staff have volunteered to clean up after and Collin’s lacrosse team will serve the meal.
“A lot of checks have come in payable to Alston Middle School from people in the community who can’t attend the dinner.
King says the dinner is open to everyone and anyone who wants to come and he encourages the community to come support these teachers.
“It sucks that teachers like them have to get cancer,” says Fields and Brown quickly seconds the sentiment.
“We appreciate everything they do to come teach us.”
Both Collins and Linton are very private people and decided to talk about their illnesses only to support the benefit effort.
“I am kinda doing this [interview] so the benefit will be a success for her [Linton],” says Collins. “yes, I’ll benefit too, but I am doing it mostly for her. I want people to attend the benefit for Linton’s benefit.”
Linton simply says “I love spaghetti!”