Strong is Our Sexy is always looking out for women who turn heads, make a difference, and #owntheirstrong, so when we crossed paths with Maria Childs, we knew we had met someone special. Not only does Maria have 20 years of experience in teaching, she has also authored two children’s books, and is a proud wife and a mom to three boys (Cameron, 25; Connor, 18; and Rylan, 16). Maria has also been battling cancer since 2009. I interviewed Maria to learn more about how she found a way to do what she loves while also fighting for her life.
When I met Maria for our interview, my first thought was, “She does not look like a cancer patient.” Maria has a distinct vitality about her, a sparkle in her eye. We made our way to a table and she immediately began talking energetically about her busy summer, and all her sons’ activities and accomplishments. Despite the fact that it was the end of the day during one of her first weeks back to school, she was a lot more energetic than I was.
Becoming a Teacher
I immediately asked Maria what made her want to become a teacher.
Here’s how she tells it: “I became a teacher because I had some great teachers growing up. I also had some that weren’t so great. I remember both. I don’t remember the ones that were just okay, but I do remember the ones that went out of their way to make learning fun.
“We moved when I was in 7th grade, probably the worst time to move ever. I was so angry; I resented that move so much at the time. I ended up in a tiny Catholic school with, like, 18 kids. It seemed like they were all related, except for me. But they welcomed me, and eventually we went to high school together.
“I suddenly realized that my teachers cared about me and would help me, and that I could be anything I wanted to be.”
“I struggled in school growing up, but the most success I ever had was in high school. I think it was because of my teachers. I suddenly realized that they cared about me and would help me, and that I could be anything I wanted to be. They would come in early and stay late to help me. They took an interest in making me a well-rounded person. My thought was, I want to do this for others earlier than when it happened for me. I want to do it for little kids, and show them that there are people who care about you, and it can be fun… and everybody can learn. That’s why I went into elementary education.
“I don’t think it would have happened if my parents hadn’t forced me to move. My best friends today are the people I met from that move… It’s amazing how one thing can change the course of your life.”
Black Ribbons with Pink Polka Dots
In the Spring of 2009, Maria noticed a mole on her face. Yep, a mole. Well, actually, she thought it was a zit. She didn’t think too much of it, and she joked that she has always had a lot of moles, so much so that people used to call her “Holy Moly” on account of her moles and her religious family. Still, she called the dermatologist for her yearly skin check just in case. There weren’t any open appointments until September, so she took the next available and figured it could wait.
All summer, this “zit” seemed to get bigger and angrier. Even her friends noticed. Eventually, she made it in for that appointment. “I will never forget sitting on the table that day,” Maria said. The doctor took one look at it and said it needed to come off. Maria asked if she should have a plastic surgeon do it, since it was on her face. The doctor looked at her and said, “If that’s what I think it is, a plastic surgeon is the least of your worries.”
Melanoma, stage 2, level 4. Maria was told she was lucky. She had it removed, and followed up with routine scans. In March 2012, one such scan didn’t look so good.
Suddenly, Maria’s situation changed. The melanoma had metastasized to her liver and lungs, and it was growing quickly. This meant aggressive treatment. She was told that melanoma was terminal – all her treatments were an attempt to buy time in hopes that a new treatment would be developed. Maria went through many different cycles of chemotherapy. At one point, she attempted to get into an NIH study, but actually didn’t have “enough” cancer to qualify. She was feeling as though hope was lost.
“I asked this nurse at the NIH what I should do. I’ll never forget it, it was like she was my angel,” Maria described. The nurse told her to go home and stay the course, and hope for a new option to open up. A new option did open up. A new clinical trial, this time at Vanderbilt in Nashville. Road trips from Cincinnati to Nashville every three weeks became the new routine.
The new treatment worked. The spots on her liver and lung were shrinking. Eventually, the spot on her lung and one on her liver were no longer visible in scans. One spot remained on her liver, but after time, doctors believed that it was just scar tissue. Things were looking better. She remained on that treatment course from Summer 2013 to February 2015.
In February, Maria went in for a CT scan, a routine check. The scan revealed some spots on her right breast, so the physician ordered a mammogram just to check. On mammogram day, the procedure turned out to have been scheduled for the wrong breast – the left. As a result, they ended up doing both, plus an ultrasound.
This revealed something Maria never expected: breast cancer in her left breast, cysts in her right. Maria has no family history of breast cancer, or any cancer for that matter. She lives a healthy lifestyle, and has few risk factors. Never smoked, rarely drinks. Still, here she was with not just one kind of cancer, but two.
“I like the pink awareness ribbon a little better,” Maria said, describing how she tried to handle the news. The melanoma awareness ribbon is black. Maria has always loved polka dots, and used them to decorate her classrooms. “I’ve never seen a polka dot frown,” she said.
Maria’s awareness ribbon is black with pink polka dots, thanks to her friends.
Living with Cancer
Maria has been battling cancer for 6 years, and still managed to continue teaching and publish two books while also being a mom and wife. I asked her what has kept her going.
“Every milestone is one that I didn’t expect to celebrate. So, when we have something to celebrate, I go all out. I have to.”
“When I look at my kids’ live and their futures, that’s what keeps me going. I want to be there for them. I’m a very prepared, ‘OCD’ person. At one point, I started my ‘just in case’ binder. I kept important reminders and documents in there, just in case the worst happened. I also wrote out cards for my kids, for all their major milestones, just in case I wasn’t there for them. I bought 16th birthday cards, 18th birthday cards, graduation cards, and wedding cards. I wrote them all out with messages to my kids.
“I feel really lucky that as time has gone on, I’ve gotten to throw some of those cards away; I didn’t need them anymore, because I made it to that milestone. I want to keep getting to throw away my ‘just in case’ cards. Every milestone is one that I didn’t expect to celebrate. So, when we have something to celebrate, I go all out. I have to.”
Maria’s three boys aren’t her only kids.
“When I started chemo for the breast cancer in the spring, they wanted me to take eight weeks off from teaching. I just couldn’t do that. I needed normalcy, plus, my class is full of ‘my kids’ too. So, I only took off the day that I had chemo. Then I came back to work. I don’t think most of the kids noticed. I hope they didn’t notice when I wasn’t feeling well. I left it up to their parents to decide how much to tell them about my illness… I could never retire. Every day I come to school, I get complimented and told that I’m loved. Kids make you feel so good about yourself. Really, they do more for me than I do for them during the year. Kids are my best medicine.”
Based on her experiences, Maria has some advice for others, whether they are facing cancer or not:
- People worry too much. They worry about everything. When you think about it, there is so much to be grateful for every day. I’ve definitely learned that. I can have the worst day in the world, and I thank God for that day. No matter what, I’m thankful I was alive that day.
- Stay positive. Find your happy place. Mine is my master bathroom. It’s crucial.
- Don’t give up, no matter what they tell you. I had one nurse tell me that I should just stop working and go on disability because I was terminal. Get rid of the negatives and focus on the positives. Never, never give up. I love the Disney quote, ‘If you can dream it, you can do it.’”
The Road Ahead
Maria just finished chemotherapy treating her breast cancer. Her new diagnosis disqualified her for the clinical trial on which she was seeing so much improvement in her melanoma. Thankfully, her melanoma spots have not grown since this change in treatment course. The road ahead is uncertain in many ways for Maria, in terms of her treatment and otherwise. Maria starts school with a brand new class of second graders this month.
Here’s how you can help:
“People say they will pray for people. That’s awesome. I ask that if you do, just be sure you really do it. Say a quick prayer. If you’re not religious, send a positive thought.”
Maria has also written and published two children’s books, partially based on her husband’s career as a third-generation firefighter. You can order autographed copies at her website or on Amazon: Firefighters Don’t! and Noah’s Treasure
ALSO, SHARE this picture of Maria! She’d like to see it go viral, so let’s help her share her story.
- American Cancer Society: www.cancer.org
- American Melanoma Foundation: http://www.melanomafoundation.org/
- Melanoma Research Alliance: www.curemelanoma.org
- Melanoma Research Foundation: www.melanoma.org
- Susan G. Komen: http://ww5.komen.org/