October is a great month to honor and remember all those women who have battled or are battling cancer. It’s also the perfect time for me to share a story about a beautiful person, both inside and out…
If you think back for a moment to January 2010, most of us were making (or breaking) New Year’s resolutions and reminiscing about all of our Christmas fun with friends and family. But, during that same time, one 35 yr. old woman was receiving the heart-breaking news that she had Stage 2 invasive ductile breast cancer.
Holly Birmingham was my son’s teacher that year and I recently had the chance to sit down with her again to talk about her journey. Holly said that the devastating news didn’t seem real at first. Initially, her worst fear was having to undergo chemo and lose her hair. Then, she sadly wondered if she would even live to raise her children, Karli, 10, and Cody, 7.
Like most cancer patients, Holly had to undergo chemo and radiation. She endured sixteen weeks of grueling chemo and thirty-one radiation treatments. But two of the many things that made Holly special, in my eyes, were that she only missed thirty days of school and never seemed to forget her contagious smile at home. Twenty selfless teachers each generously gave Holly a day of their precious vacation time so that she wouldn’t have to take unpaid time off. So, the gift of time here speaks volumes.
I asked Holly how she got through her darkest days and she said, “I got through my toughest days with my mom praying by my side with me and for me. It also helped to have a supportive dad, who was willing to give everything he had to help me pay for my treatments and surgeries. He was always there to lift me up and love me.”
Holly said that pulling herself out of bed on even the roughest mornings to come to school and teach her students was healing in itself. She shared that teaching her students helped her take her mind off of the treatments. Her classroom was the only place where things were still “normal” for her. She said she was blessed that year with a wonderful class and their sweet, innocent smiles brightened her days.
A second grader now, Myra, recalls her kindergarten year with Ms. Birmingham battling cancer. “I didn’t think [of] her being sick because she still taught me every single letter of the alphabet,” said Myra. “The subs were nice, but I loved her the most.” Holly said that all of the teachers and staff were always there to support her as well.
On the day Holly finished her last treatment, her daughter surprised her with a cookie bouquet that she had saved for and purchased with her own money. Holly and her family also took a trip to Colorado to celebrate. In August 2011, when many of us were gearing up for another school year, Holly was gearing up for a beautiful new chapter in her life – one that was cancer-free again. She received word on August 1, 2011, that she had officially beat cancer.
Through all of this, Holly said, “I’ve realized that life is precious and you live each day to the fullest. I also learned that you can’t worry about the small stuff. You learn to treasure and make the most of every moment you do have with your children and family.”
When asked how she was able to “thrive” instead of merely “survive” the ordeal, Holly said she owes the strength to God. She also knew, as a single parent, that her two children were relying on her and depended on her. When a mother is able to dig down deep and find it within herself to keep giving when there doesn’t seem to be anything else left to give – that’s a mom with the Power of P4.
What is P4? It stands for PINK, PRAYER, PEOPLE and being POSITIVE. All of the things Holly mentioned that helped her beat cancer fell into these categories:
PINK – Her automatic e-mail signature is signed in pink on purpose – a daily reminder of her courageous strength. Pink is for the amazing determination of all women who have battled or are battling cancer. Pink also reminds us to continue supporting cancer research.
PRAYER – Holly puts her faith in God. When she doubted, she remembered that when there was only one set of footprints, that was when He carried her.
PEOPLE – Holly’s children, family and friends were there for her. They even organized a benefit in June 2010 to help Holly with her medical expenses. They were there to listen…to love…to lean on.
Being POSITIVE – Holly said that keeping a positive attitude was crucial – “Act the way you want to feel.” I was constantly mesmerized (still am) by Holly’s ability to keep her spirits high. I’m quite certain that teaching a room full of five year olds involves some challenging days from time to time. But wiping tears was something she lovingly did for them, instead of the reverse.
When Holly’s daughter, Karli, was asked in school to write about the person she admired most, it’s not surprising that she chose her mom. Karli wrote, “I admire her because she’s the kindest person I know. Not only is she the kindest person, but she’s the strongest person I know. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and was still strong for me and my brother, Cody. No matter how bad she felt or if she was weak, she was always there. While she was going through her cancer, my mom and dad got a divorce, which was really hard on us. I think about her everyday. These are the reasons I admire my mom the most.”
The white snow that blanketed the earth during Holly’s Brackenridge vacation was refreshing and renewing, as it reminded her of how she too was “blanketed” in the Power of P4 during her journey with cancer. We are inspired by you, Holly, and all women who look cancer directly in the eyes and battle it with all their heart and soul. Thank you for being you!