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Fighting Cancer While Teaching Online

May. 6, 2016

Sue Nelson’s love for teaching knows no bounds, and takes no time off – even when her family is on summer vacation.

“The kids always hated summer break, because I always turned every trip into a field trip to the museum,” Nelson recalled as she laughed. “We always had to make sure we were learning something.”

Not that she will ever apologize to her family for that love of learning. In fact, she believes her curiosity for the world – specifically fine art – is the reason she is here today.

“Fine art saved my life. I was reading an article about Rembrandt’s mistress and the painting he drew of her (Bathsheba At Her Bath), and how she had a dent in her breast. I went to the doctor and said, ‘You’re going to think I’m crazy, but I think I’ve got a dent in my breast and that it might be cancer because of this painting in this article I read.’”

Nelson was far from crazy; rather, she was spot on. She was diagnosed with stage two breast cancer.

“How is this going to work?” Nelson asked. “If I was in a regular brick and mortar school, I would have had to take the year off.”

Instead, Nelson – a science teacher at Denver Online High School – continued teaching throughout the school year while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatment every week. Most students in the school require flexible school schedules, whether that’s because of a full-time job in the evening, traveling or semi-pro athletic commitments.

Nelson interacts with most students over the computer, allowing her to recover in the safety of her home after her weekly chemotherapy. While nobody would have blamed Nelson for taking the year off, any teacher will tell you that time with students can be therapeutic. Some students, like Nelson, have health challenges that prevent them from attending a regular school.

“I like being able to see the kids,” Nelson said. “This is real life. This is what’s happening. If I’m honest with the kids, they’re more honest with me. That helps me figure out how to help them.”

Nelson finished with chemotherapy in March 2016 and, after a few weeks off to rest, has received radiation every weekday since the third week of March. She will be finished in early May. Following that, she will be starting a course of anti-hormone therapy that runs for five years. Her hair and eyebrows are starting to grow back, and she told us that radiation is much easier than chemotherapy. She says she now has the time, energy and okay from her doctors to pursue her biggest passion other than teaching: gardening.

“Life is good!” Nelson said.