Theresa Stapler has an “Up” philosophy on life.
“When you wake up, you look up and thank God for giving you another day,” said Stapler. “Then you get up, you dress up, you show up — and pray that you don’t throw up — and in the end, you never give up.”
It’s a mindset that she’s eager to share. She has it written out in calligraphy and hanging on her wall. Be grateful. Keep going. There’s a plan.
Her philosophy has helped as she’s pulled herself through a year of surgery and chemotherapy to overcome the disease that might not have been detected at all, except that Stapler always gets her annual screening mammogram.
“I am an advocate for routine mammograms,” said Stapler. “If it hadn’t been for that, this would’ve been a different story.”
The one that she received in September 2014 showed something. A follow-up screening was scheduled and, on Sept. 26, Stapler received a call from Raul Zunzunegui, MD, a Susan G. Komen Fellowship-trained breast specialist who is board-certified in surgery with Comprehensive Breast Care Center, who gave her the news: breast cancer.
Stapler was alone in her Central Elementary classroom where she taught gifted fourth- and fifth-grade students — a space she calls her “sanctuary.” And breaking the news to her kids was one of the hardest parts of the diagnosis.
She put together a PowerPoint, and the principal, assistant principal and nurse joined her as she discussed the cancer with her class. The kids were immediately supportive and eager to help, even as the necessary treatments pulled her out of the classroom and claimed her hair.
“I took my kids to swim with the manatees down in Florida in February,” said Stapler. “It’s something I do every year, and I promised them that we’d do it this year, too. I had to stay on the boat because they were worried I’d get an infection, and it got so hot that I asked the kids if I could take off my wig. One little girl, a fourth-grader, said ‘Ms. Stapler, you’re beautiful no matter what!’ and when I took the wig off, another girl said, ‘Wow, Ms. Stapler! You rock that bald head!’ ”
Adjusting to the change in her appearance caused by the cancer treatment was difficult, and some days Stapler found it difficult to keep looking up. But she knew that support was never far when she needed it. The schools held fund raisers — not just Central Elementary, but the whole cluster, including Central Middle and Central High. Parents of children that Stapler had taught were eager to help and the community at large was at her side.
“I just can’t say enough about the Carroll County community,” said Stapler. “They all rallied behind me. On my birthday in September, the kids at Central Elementary sent me a box of letters wrapped in pink paper.”
Stapler also found support at Tanner, where she was receiving treatment, through support groups and patient navigators.
“The Look Good … Feel Better group at Tanner was a breakthrough for me emotionally,” said Stapler. “I was surrounded by women who had different kinds of cancer. Two women had their hair, and two of us didn’t have any hair. Going to that workshop was so liberating, because I took my wig off and I was happy with who I was. It made me feel good about myself. Even if I looked in the mirror and saw someone I didn’t know looking back at me, I knew that was my inside warrior. With the support they gave me, I learned that it’s OK to be bald. That’s just part of the fight.”
The cancer sapped enough of Stapler’s strength that she retired in 2015 after 33 years of teaching. She’d hoped to make it to 35 years, but, she said, God just had a different plan for her. She’s at peace with the decision and continues to be involved in the classroom, working for the West Georgia Regional Educational Service Agency (RESA).
And on Christmas Eve — Dec. 24 — she will get the best Christmas gift she could hope for: her last cancer treatment.
“I’ll get through this,” said Stapler. “I don’t know what God has in store for me next, but I know it has something to do with helping others get through this. I don’t know how or where, but I know God is going to use this for something great.”