Gina Benedetti is a colon cancer survivor from Petaluma, California who was featured in the 2017 On the Rise by our partners at The Colon Club. She is a mother and an elementary school teacher. She shares her story on the challenges that came with working while fighting colon cancer. 

I had my first colonoscopy, which diagnosed me with colon cancer, on a Monday. I immediately informed my principal and she told me to take care of myself and they would find a substitute for when I was out with surgery.

My final day of teaching for that year was Wednesday, two days after my initial diagnosis. I went into work to tie up loose ends and help my substitute. I didn’t let on to my students I would be out for six weeks. It would’ve been too hard for me. My principal took care of that with a letter to the parents explaining the situation. Bless her heart.

The following Wednesday, I had my surgery. I waited to hear from pathology whether I needed chemo. Ten very long days later my surgeon called and said that the cancer was found in 9/27 lymph nodes so I needed a port and to begin chemo.

Stepping Back

When I told my principal, she reassured me my class was taken care of and the substitute could handle it for the remainder of the year. Because I was teaching first grade, I was fearful for the risk of infection if I continued to teach. I couldn’t have disrupted the schedule and had a substitute come every other week for a few days, IF I was feeling well enough to teach when I wasn’t receiving chemo.

Now that I look back, there would’ve been no way I could’ve taught during treatment. The side effects were too much to handle just laying on my couch at home! I’m very thankful that my principal took control of the situation and my coworkers helped out.

My coworkers donated their sick days so that I would be paid until the end of the school year.

I’m glad I stepped back and fortunate for the support of my boss and co-workers.

Slowly Rejoining the Workforce

The school year for the following year began as I was finishing up chemo. I decided to do a “job share” that year, which means you share your classroom with another teacher. You split up the days of the week and work part-time. My co-teacher worked full weeks when I had chemo.

I had a very hard time with (still do) with my memory, concentration and organization. Even since completing treatment, this is a struggle. As I rejoined the workforce, I found that I didn’t have the patience I had before. I often wondered if I should find another career. I became depressed and anxious.

I was “thrown” back into a life I didn’t know how to navigate anymore. I wasn’t the same person, but everyone expected me to pick up where I left off. All the help, phone calls and support dwindled rapidly once my treatment ended. That, along with working and caring for a toddler, was a lot to handle.

I’m glad I worked part-time when I completed treatment so I could handle this transition into the “new normal,” – which has been the hardest part of this cancer journey so far.

Jumping Back Into Full-Time

After going part-time and evaluating what I needed, I decided it was best for me to continue teaching and go back to a full-time position. I needed to continue working in my passion and I missed the classroom. I now teach 4th grade, and it’s been a good thing for me.

I’m not quite two years out from completing treatment. It hasn’t been easy. I have to write everything down and students constantly remind me of things. It has gotten easier as the time goes on, but I am still struggling.

I do spend more time nurturing my students and really caring about their emotional needs, more so than before cancer. I feel like it made my heart bigger so I have a huge amount of empathy for my students.

I cherish my job and my students more now than I did before cancer.

I am very open and honest about my cancer with my students and their parents. My co-workers have continued to be a support to me. I’m grateful for the team around me who encouraged me to step back from work when I needed it, and who helped me step back into work when I was ready.


Balancing CRC and Employment Webinar

Working after a cancer diagnosis comes with many unexpected challenges. These challenges could include talking to your colleagues about your diagnosis, taking time off from work or reducing work hours, financial stressors, and more.

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9 thoughts on “Teacher Fights Colon Cancer

  1. I was diagnosed in June, 2015, had surgery, & started chemo the day after returning to work for the school year. My district was very supportive of me, & my principal was protective of me being around illnesses. It was a very tiring year/experience, but I’m extremely grateful. ????????????????????

  2. I know it sounds strange to say, but it is comforting to hear someone discuss how difficult it is to return to work after treatment. I too struggle with memory loss and just not being my usual “on top of things” self. I think this is a big part that many people do not understand. It also helps to hear that you could not do your job while going through treatment. One of my oncologists told me that I could still work and take treatments! At the time I was a kindergarten assistant. I agree with you, there would have been no way that I could have worked during treatment. Thank you for sharing your story.

  3. Gina
    I found your story inspiring and very similar to mine.
    I was a teacher of 3 and 4 year olds and was diagnosed the last day of school June 2016. Stage 4 colorectal. I called my principal once I found out I needed chemo. And told her I would be back in October,, ,, what was I thinking??? Chemo did a number on me plus. I had an illeostemy bag! Anyway. Now a year and 3 months later I am cancer free,and illeostemy free! I am 65 and although I wanted to make it to 35 years at my school, I think God had other plans!! SoI may substitute and will volunteer ar my cancer center! A new life and a new normal,,

  4. Great article
    I went through exact same situation diagnosed last August, surgery SEPT 2016. Post surgery got an infection, after that I got shingles, so chemo was delayed until November. The woman in the article is young, but I’ve taught 40 years. I did not teach 2017-2017 school year as I did not finish chemo until mid- May 2017. I have retired. I am ( a young 67), but I have retired. I get everything this article talked about.
    Glad to know now some of the side effects were common even to a you get person. Chemo does a number on patients. But I am cancer free now, and I am very grateful and happy to start the never art of my life.
    Thanks for this past!

  5. You’re such a genuine soul. I hope that your story helps others and that you continue to have such a positive outlook on life. It’s infectious and inspiring.

  6. Gina, I’m so glad you were able to re-join the real world. I was diagnosed at 29-years-old and I am a teacher, too. It’s great that you were able to take time off while on chemotherapy! Like you I found that it was good to be open with students and parents. We are a good model for what perseverance looks like. Since I teach high schoolers my situation was different. When I was diagnosed, I told students that I would be on chemotherapy with six months, and they were the most well behaved students I have ever had!

    Best of luck! You’re an inspiration.

    1. I am also a high school teacher. I was diagnosed may of 2017. I had surgery immediately and all my lymph nodes came back clear. I had a 6 month post op ct scan and 1 lymph node showed up as being suspicious. I then had a pet scan and it indeed was. April 2018 I had a port put in and got chemo 3 days later. I have finished 5/8 oxiplaten and xeloda treatments. I will have scans redone after treatment 8 and then do radiation.
      My students have been so understanding. This August will be the 3 group of students who have been impacted by my diagnosis. High school kids get a bad rap but they have big hearts!!!
      So glad you are doing well and praying that 2019 will be a cancer free year for me. I will be 40 in 2019.

  7. I was dignoised in 2013 stage 3. Jan 2014 I had surgery lived with an illeostomy that entire year had agreesive chemo and radiation then by Nov I had a reversal no more illeostomy.
    2015 adjustments to the new norm big challenges , also going through all the emotions you can think of . No one could understand what colorectal stage 3 did to my self esteem , integrity , women hood .
    2016 was on going PT with three different therapist very benificial . Finally 2017 have control of my system , put fearing my future on hold . Live Life according to how you heal .

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