A teacher's lessons become a survivor's strength

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The best support system: Geri Dirksen, 73, smiles between her daughters: Cythia Dirksen, 41, and Mari Beth Dirksen-Turse, 37. | SUPPLIED PHOTO

Geraldine Dirksen, 73, taught at Chicago Public Schools for 30 years, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1987, the same year as the last Chicago Teachers Union strike.

Dirksen, a longtime Wilmette resident, recalled her cancer survivor story from a peacock green settee in her home.

She remembered trying to return to normalcy with her class of second-grade, special-needs students that year.

“We had just gotten back to school after the strike. The kids had been out of school almost a month,” she said.

Back then, she had a teaching partner to wrangle her class of 30-some students, who were challenging to control after four weeks out of the classroom.

This was early October 1987. Within a month, she would undergo a bilateral mastectomy. Nevertheless, she made it back to the classroom in six weeks.

“This monster wasn’t going to beat me,” Dirksen said. “I never thought I was not going to make it.”

A couple years prior, Dirksen said she started experiencing hot flashes, and she was prescribed two hormone supplements to alleviate her symptoms.

“I got the hormones; it gave me cancer instead of curing the hot flashes,” she said.

On Oct. 20, 1987, she went in for a scheduled mammogram, and the doctors found a lump. On Oct. 22, she had a needle biopsy. It was cancerous.

Dirksen recalled the events surrounding the phone call from the doctor telling her she had cancer.

“The doctor called on a Monday night, which I thought was odd,” she said.

The Friday before, one of Dirksen’s daughters had snuck out of home to meet friends who were going to teepee someone else’s house. The following Monday, the friends’ parents were getting together at Dirksen’s home to determine what the punishment would be for the girls. Then the phone call came.

Dirksen no longer felt like punishing her daughter.

On Nov. 3, she underwent a full mastectomy on her left breast at Evanston Hospital.

Once the doctors removed the lump, they saw it to be lobular, which meant the chances were high that a mirror image of the tumor was in the opposite breast. The doctor’s suspicions were right.

She went back the next week to have her other breast removed. This was Nov. 16.

“The second time I was much more fearful. I thought maybe I have it somewhere else,” she said. Luckily, a body scan showed no other cancer.

Dirksen’s chemotherapy treatments started after the holiday break in 1988. She worked out an agreement with her principal to take half days every other Friday for treatments. Chemo wasn’t affecting her too adversely, so she stuck it out in the classroom.

After a few months, however, it became too much. Her teaching partner had left so she was stuck with about 30 kids.

“I was totally wiped out, these kids were demanding,” she said.

She completed chemo in the summer that year and underwent reconstructive surgery.

From there, her rout with cancer wasn’t something that disappeared right way. Besides, she had two daughters — who were teenagers at the time — to raise.

“It kind of just stayed with me,” she said. “It wasn’t until I retired in 1999, when both girls were out of college, that I got to take time and think about myself.”

While she knew she couldn’t control exactly what happened to her through life, “I could control how I reacted to it.” She attributed her recovery to her positive outlook and to her family who supported her often.

Her sister, Elizabeth Carr, 78, a Northbrook resident, agreed, looking at her sister warmly from an adjacent loveseat in the Wilmette house.

“She’s a pillar of strength,” Carr said.