Xavier students show support for teacher’s recovery
by Martha Allen
LEAVENWORTH — The halls of Xavier Elementary School here were awash with pink on Oct. 25 as students and teachers donned pink shirts, socks, jeans and even hats to recognize and congratulate Cindi Thiele, middle school social studies teacher and technology coordinator at Xavier, on her first cancer-free anniversary.
Or, in her words, her new birthday.
Despite her painful battle with an aggressive form of breast cancer last year, Thiele contends that her faith and the prayers and support of family, fellow parish members and especially the staff and students at Xavier eased the stress of the grueling treatment and ac- companying emotional issues.
Thiele’s story is linked to relatively recent genetic testing advances. Most people who develop breast cancer, explained Thiele, do not carry the BRCA (acronym for breast cancer) gene mutation, but for those testing positive for that specific gene, the risk of developing breast or uterine cancer reaches 70 percent.
In Thiele’s case, there was a strong family history of breast cancer; her older sister had breast cancer at age 34. She said that a cousin, with whom she shared a common grandmother and who had developed breast cancer, was tested in 2008 and found to be positive for the gene. As a result, Thiele and her siblings underwent the test. Four of the six brothers and sisters tested positive for it. Those with positive readings were encouraged to undergo recommended preventive courses of treatment and routine exams for the presence of cancer.
Thiele recalled her initial reaction to her own diagnosis in 2012.
“I had followed a preventive regimen since 2008 when I learned I carried the specific BRCA-1 gene, denoting a strong family history for breast cancer,” she said. “At my twice-yearly exam, the technician conducting my routine diagnostic MRI seemed to be capturing more images than usual, but I was confident she was just being overcautious because she was new to the testing. I’d convinced myself that I had beaten breast cancer, since my family members with the disease were diagnosed in their 30s, while I had reached my mid-50s cancer free.
“However, once the diagnosis sank in and I learned I had a very early, but aggressive, form of cancer, I quickly accepted it and said, ‘OK. I’ve got it, so let’s take care of it,’ and we treated it as a mission to be accomplished.”
Throughout the challenging treatments that followed, said Thiele, “my Catholic faith is what held me up and gave me the strength to go though the surgeries and four rounds of chemotherapy. I don’t know how people can undergo all of that without faith.”
She credited prayer with reducing her stress throughout the treatment and said the prayers and help of her pastor, Father Phil Winkelbauer, and fellow parishioners at Sacred Heart-St. Casimir in Leavenworth were critical to her recovery.
But during this very special Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Oct. 25 was the day to celebrate Thiele’s recovery and caring relationship with her Xavier family. She recalled many ways in which the support from staff and students there contributed to her wellbeing throughout her illness.
“My school family was there for me from day one. I especially credit Mandy Mrosczcak with uncomplicating my life in treatment by taking over my duties as librarian and media teacher while I was on leave the first semester of 2012. She kept the library functioning beautifully, freeing me from worry about both the library and my classes.”
“The entire staff,” she continued, “welcomed me warmly anytime I visited the school building while in treatment. They even sent delicious food to me at home.
“When I returned full time in January of this year — and even now — ev- ery need I have had for breaks or time off has been met with encouragement, kindness and understanding. They’ve insulated me from any pressure involving my work at school.
“That’s just how this school is; it holds each of us in tough times, especially when we don’t feel so tough.”
“During my treatment last October, I was even treated to a surprise rally by the students, who gifted me with cheers and notes of encouragement and hope, some of which brought me to tears as they were so touching,” she added. “I still keep them close by and reread them often. Pink T-shirts with my favorite Bible verse were a part of that rally.”
Wearing the same rally shirt again at Friday’s celebration, she turned to show the message printed on the back, “I can do all things through Christ,” along with “Love Hope Faith” on a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon on the front. The same shirt was also worn by many of the school staff Friday.
“I came to teaching late,” said Thiele as she spoke about her choice to teach at Xavier, “completing my education degree from the University of Saint Mary. There never was a question about where I would teach. I knew I wanted to teach at a Catholic school to pass on our faith in the faith-based setting that only a Catholic school provides. It is most important to me.”
What advice does she have for persons facing the diagnosis of breast cancer? Thiele said that along with her sister and her daughter, she studied the disease and treatment options together, relying on scientific research rather than anecdotal blogs. As a resource specialist herself and having a daughter as a chiropractic student, they were able to comb the research for information useful in communicating with her medical team.
She said, too, that she chose her doctor carefully. She recommended taking advantage of the many resources of the American Cancer Society and, in her case, the St. Joseph Breast Center’s wellness program that provided nutritional counseling, exercise and self- care services.
With the treatments behind her, Thiele is determined not to let cancer define her. She contends she has come through her bout with the disease even stronger than she was in her precancer days.
“I was that person who always felt I could do anything if I prayed about it andsetmymindtoit,andnowIfeelit even more,” said Thiele.
“I am my old self, but even more so,” she said. “Yes, even more so.”