Schooling in health

Deputy superintendent learned from breast cancer

Clayton County Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Stefanie Phillips shows off a picture of her mother, Elaine Pannell, that she keeps on her desk at work. Phillips and her mother are both breast cancer survivors.

Clayton County Public Schools Deputy Superintendent Stefanie Phillips shows off a picture of her mother, Elaine Pannell, that she keeps on her desk at work. Phillips and her mother are both breast cancer survivors.

— The life of Stefanie Phillips unexpectedly turned into a roller coaster over the course of one weekend in May 2005.

It began on a high note when Phillips, the deputy superintendent of Clayton County Public Schools, received her doctorate from the University of Southern California. She said she was felling “all big and bad” because she could now be referred to as “Doctor.”

The weekend ended with her doctor taking her breath away by informing her she had breast cancer. She was 36 at the time — four years younger than the age when doctors recommend women begin undergoing mammograms to check for breast cancer.

“I was totally caught off guard,” said Phillips. “They said, ‘Dr. Phillips, I’m sorry to inform you, but you have cancer.’ At that point, it was like this tunnel happened, and I couldn’t hear anything. From there, it was a long way to here.”

The educator sees her cancer as a lesson in healthy living. It turned her into a “health freak” who lives a more active lifestyle that includes golf, tennis and walking. She said it is also a lesson for younger girls and women about why it is important to get breast exams at earlier and earlier ages.

Phillips said her cancer was caught at a “very early stage” because she had a family history of breast cancer and started undergoing breast exams at 35.

Her mother, Elaine Pannell, had been a breast cancer for three years by the time Phillips got her diagnoses, so the educator was familiar with her options and what she needed to do.

That still didn’t make it easy to tell her husband, their two elementary school-age sons, her sisters and other relatives about her diagnoses.

“I think the hardest thing in accepting that you’ve been diagnosed with something like that is how do you tell the people who are going to be most affected?” said Phillips. “Once it hit me, I was like ‘OK, I got it, but how am I going to go home and tell my husband and my children?’ That was the most gut-wrenching thing I’ve ever had to do.”

Phillips said it was especially difficult to tell her husband because — although the women in her family who got breast cancer have survived it — the people in his family who got the cancer died from it at young ages.

“Telling my husband was more than just ‘Hey, I’ve got it and I’ll be OK,’ because his family had a history of death based on breast cancer,” she said. “It was a very anxious situation.”

Phillips decided to take a straight-forward to explaining her diagnoses to her sons. It’s an approach she recommends other parents take towards talking with young children about a cancer diagnoses.

She said she felt she needed to be a “rock” for her children because cancer can be “drama,” “chaos” and “confusion” for a family, particularly for children.

The attitude of the cancer patient can set the tone for how the children respond to the situation, she said.

“All they understand is ‘Will mom be OK? Is she going to die?’ ” she said. “I would tell people who have just been diagnosed with breast cancer to be there for their children and let them ask as many questions as they want to ask you.”

Once Phillips told her family about her diagnoses, she found she had a “built-in support system” to get through the cancer. She said she had “books thrown” at her by relatives eager to help her get past everything.

She began treatment immediately by undergoing a double mastectomy over a period of several surgeries. She decided to go that route, instead of undergoing prolonged chemotherapy treatments, to get all tissue that might have cancer cells.

Phillips said she had to take a “significant amount of time off” from her job as assistant superintendent of business services of the Ontario-Montclair (Calif.) School District.

She explained there were times after her surgery where she could barely lift her arms because her body was so sore. She said simple, everyday tasks — such as eating or scratching her head or nose — became difficult jobs to perform.

“You take for granted all of the things that you can do as a fully-abled person,” Phillips said. “Breast cancer survivors, and survivors of other cancers, go through a lot to feel whole again, but it’s not your body that makes you who you are. It’s your spirit and your soul.

“If you can fight past the disability, then there’s the whole rest of your life waiting for you.”

She recommended people who get breast cancer not let it define who they are. They should define how the cancer impacts their lives, she said. She encouraged cancer survivors to treat it merely as an experience they went through, rather than a definition of who they are.

Phillips had to undergo follow-up procedures and post-care and after-care check-ups for four years after her diagnoses. She was still undergoing post-care treatment after she came to Clayton County schools in 2009.

Even today — three years after her last post-care check-up — she said she is still checking to see if she will have will have a relapse.

“I do still get regular exams and I’m still on guard for other tissue cancers,” she said.

The cancer has so far not returned, Phillips said.

“I’m clean today!” she proclaimed.

In addition to her own regular breast cancer exams, she said she insists on her sons undergoing regular exams for health issues. She said her family has also discussed genetic testing.

Given the family history of cancer on both their maternal and paternal sides of the family tree, she said there is a concern that either of her sons could be predisposed to getting some form of cancer whether it is prostate cancer or even breast cancer.

“I guess the question is ‘Will they pass on genes?’ or, you know, men do develop breast cancer on rare occasions,” she said.

If there is one thing Phillips wants to impart o young people — especially school-aged children — about cancer, it is that they should not consider themselves invulnerable.

She said she is forthcoming about her experience when speaking to groups of students and adults because she wants people to be more aware of how likely their chances of getting breast cancer could be.

She said she has spoken at Clayton County Relay for Life events and her goal is to someday participate in a Susan G. Komen three-day walk for cancer research and awareness.

“It doesn’t matter who you are, how much influence or prestige your family has, how smart you are how pretty you are or how nice you are,” said Phillips. “It doesn’t care about any of that and we all need to be compassionate to people who are afflicted because they didn’t choose it and they didn’t do anything wrong.”