Kathleen Terner of West Linn is adapting to distance learning while awaiting word on whether months of medical treatment have been successful. (Photo by Alex Pulaski, OSBA)
Like teachers by the thousands in Oregon and more across the country, Kathleen Terner considers a kitchen table her classroom these days.
Hunched over a math textbook and notebook, she grapples with how to bridge the distance from her home to 128 West Linn High School geometry and advanced algebra students who will complete this school year from their own kitchens, bedrooms and living rooms. This disconnected age of COVID-19 has given us distance learning, a shared virtual reality.
As teachers struggle to maintain their student bonds, Terner’s tale provides object lessons in confronting uncertainty and persevering against pain. She awaits a phone call this Thursday, April 23, a voice to tell her whether months of treatments have worked and a shadow has been lifted.
Love is the thread here: Terner’s love for her students. Her love of God. Her love for her three grown children. Her love for math and its comfortable certainty, the assurance that varied roads lead to the same destination, the one and only answer.
Strange to ponder the variables, though, like the October 2019 evening when her daughter – the direct, observant biology major – looked across the dinner table and asked Terner whether she had a sore throat.
I can see your lymph nodes from here, her daughter replied.
Or the call in early November, just after the last school bell rang at 3:10 p.m. The doctor, the mother of a former student, said the biopsy results were back.
I’m so sorry to tell you, she said. It’s positive. You have cancer.
Terner felt untethered, as if the classroom were spinning around her. Later, buoyed by faith and resolve, she held on to Room E206 and refused to let go.
A ticking time bomb
According to the Oral Cancer Foundation, about 26 million Americans at any given time are infected with the human papillomavirus (HPV).
Most immune systems clear it within two years, and only nine of the nearly 200 HPV strains are known to cause cancer. Certain strains, however, notably type 16, act like a ticking time bomb, showing up decades later in the form of throat or cervical cancer.
In the days and months following her diagnosis of throat cancer caused by HPV, Terner, 54, faced a grueling treatment regimen. First, surgical removal of her tonsils and adenoids.
Then 7½ weeks of daily weekday radiation treatments and three bouts of chemotherapy, staged three weeks apart. Doctors suggested she miss two to three months of work. Her colleagues encouraged her to take care of herself.
What does that mean for the average person? A 2016 study of 102 HPV throat cancer patients concluded that those who returned to work did so after taking a median of 14.5 weeks off.
Terner wasn’t buying numbers like those. In the end, she missed eight school days, and four of them might have been the result of whooping cough.
“Her one concern was not herself, but her students,” said Kaleb McKern, West Linn High’s co-math department chair. “The biggest thing everybody was so shocked about was her saying she was going to try not to miss school.”
Surgery was on a Thursday, Nov. 14. She stayed home that day and Friday and was back on Monday, her birthday, discussing congruent polygons with her geometry students and prepping her advanced algebra students for a test.
“I wanted to be there for my students and I love what I do,” she said. “I was not uncomfortable.”
That came later.
Finding her voice
The 7½ weeks of radiation started on Dec. 2. Treatments require wearing a custom-fitted thermoplastic mask that keeps the head perfectly still while radiation beams target the neck’s cancerous area for about 15 minutes daily.
“You can’t even move your lips,” she said, twisting around to show bald areas about two-thirds of the way down the back of her head. “I tend to be a little bit claustrophobic, so I used to think of myself lying on the beach in the sun.”
Unlike the sun, however, the radiation left her burned inside and out. She applied salve multiple times a day on her neck and wore a cotton wrap because “I didn’t want to scare the kids.”
The effects inside her throat and mouth were severely more pronounced. As is common, she lost her sense of taste, her mouth and throat felt dry and raw, and speaking became a chore. The three longer chemotherapy treatments sapped her strength.
“It was quite painful…the doctor kept suggesting I ought to stay home,” Terner said.
She asked questions in return: Is it bad for me to talk? Is it bad for me to stand? When the doctor said no to both, she kept teaching, negotiating the last radiation treatments daily so she usually only had to miss the last 15 minutes of school.
“One of the reasons I can have a good connection with my students, is I have a genuine love for them, and a genuine enjoyment of the teaching process,” she said. “When I come to work in the morning I feel like I’m coming to a celebration, almost like a birthday party.
“That’s why when I got to the point where I couldn’t even speak, I still wanted to be able to see my students and help them. I kept having to find a way to do that as my situation got worse and worse.”
As Terner’s voice began to fade, colleagues found her a wireless microphone. A huge speaker amplified her whispers.
Toward the end of January her voice was all but gone. Terner downloaded a speech app and entered some standard phrases and questions that her phone could convey with the press of a button:
Who can suggest the next step? Can you explain why?
Terner, running a fever, ended up in the emergency room at the end of January. The probable culprit: whooping cough. She missed four days of class, but after taking antibiotics a cough subsided and her voice grew stronger.
By late February or early March she stopped using the microphone altogether. Then, on the night of March 12, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced that schools would close temporarily (an order since extended to include the entire 2019-20 school year).
On March 13, Terner greeted each of her classes with a similar message.
We don’t know what the future holds, she told them, but we have each other right now.
Her students feel the connection.
“She constantly mentions how excited she is to see us,” said sophomore Owen Hoy.
“She absolutely loves to interact with her students,” said sophomore Kenna-Elysia Jones. “I could hear the desperation in her voice when she told us she might not be able to talk to us or might have to take days off from teaching. That hurt.”
Making a difference
A double major in math and business, Terner obtained a master’s degree in business administration and followed the business route for 4½ years before raising three kids and obtaining her teaching credential in 2006. She has lived and taught in West Linn since 2008.
Sometimes friends ask her why she doesn’t chase the money and go back to business. She recites these stories:
A parent who told her she had changed the trajectory of her child’s life.
A student who told Terner she had been one of the two most influential people in her life. The student had decided to make engineering her career, ignoring others who had made her feel she was no good at math.
A fellow teacher who told her that a student had written his college application essay about Terner. The young man, a non-native English speaker, credited her with motivating him to finish high school and get an advanced degree.
“That’s something that you can’t put a price on – loving your job and making a difference in someone’s life,” Terner said.
Faith in God is a central part of Terner’s being, but one she keeps under wraps during the school day to comply with court decisions around the Constitution’s separation of church and state.
Faith has kept her strong as she awaits word this week on whether her surgery and treatments have kept the cancer at bay. On Wednesday she will go through a 90-minute scan.
The prognosis phone call comes the following day. She is thinking positively.
“An essential component of what I believe is to trust in God day by day,” she said. “God comes first, then loving other people, and right after that comes my motorcycle.”
It’s a 2018 Harley-Davidson Softail Slim.
“I love the speed, I love being in the moment,” she said. “You get to experience the world around you: You feel the cold, you can taste the salt from the ocean, smell the seaweed in the air, hear the waves.
“For me I feel closest to God when I’m on my bike. It’s a true sense of freedom, loving the moment, not thinking about what happened yesterday or what might happen tomorrow.”
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