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The hard lesson my diagnosis taught me

“What are those spots?" a student asked me one day, pointing at my face.

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"Pimples,” I said, annoyed that my complexion, not his assignment, was the topic of discussion.

"Have you been eating a lot of chocolate?”

"No,” I said, lying, as I was definitely getting Kit Kat-wasted on the reg. "I'm stressed,” I hissed.

"Maybe you shouldn't be so stressed," he advised, turning back to his assignment to indicate the conversation was over.

I recounted this story to my friends and we laughed hysterically at "the things kids say," but when I think back to this encounter, I realize there was wisdom in my student’s needling advice.

People looked at me and assumed I had my shit together as a teacher. My classroom was meticulously tidy. My bulletin boards were beautiful and teeming with student work. My kids were on-point. But my skin was a raging indication that things were not as perfect as they seemed. I was a hot, stressed mess. On a good day, I worked twelve hours in the classroom. Most days I stayed later than that, sometimes not leaving school until close to 9pm. Arriving home exhausted, and still having more work to do in preparation for the next day, I’d throw something in the microwave and then burn the midnight oil lesson planning. After only a few hours of sleep, I’d awake the next day and do the whole thing all over again fueled by adrenaline, Oreos and Starbucks lattes.

As I moved up the ranks from teacher to school leader to Achievement Coach for a network of schools to Cofounder and Chief Academic Officer of an education technology company, I got slightly better at taking care of myself. I joined a gym and religiously practiced yoga. I ate fewer Kit Kats and more kale. I slept for longer stretches at night. But stress was still an underlying theme in my life and I struggled to consistently implement any of these healthy habits, especially given my workaholic tendencies. What can I say? I was young. I thought I was invincible.

And then last spring I was diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 33.

There is no history of breast cancer in my family and I do not carry the gene. So my cancer was “environmental” – meaning something about the way I was living my life caused me to catch cancer. Reread what I wrote above and it’s easy to see all the ways I abused the one and only body I have, ignoring the stress signals my body was sending – hello, pimples! The strategies I’d only recently adopted to take better care of myself couldn’t erase the years of compounded toxic stress.

Since undergoing treatment for cancer, I’ve made some serious lifestyle changes, making wellness one of my top priorities (my family being another). Whereas the old me would have stayed up late ogling bulletin boards on Pinterest, the new me goes to sleep at 9 o’clock every night, giving my body a solid 8 hours of sleep so it can heal. I fuel my body during the day with nutritious food even though it requires more time to pack myself a salad for lunch than grab a microwavable meal. But the time is worth it because eating well makes me feel good. When life inevitably begins to feel stressful, I take a deep breath and remind myself that I determine how to expend my emotional energy, refusing to waste it on things I cannot control. I meditate and I do even more yoga. The other day I looked in the mirror and it occurred to me that for the first time in years, my adult-onset acne is gone.

I frequently hear teachers say, “There isn’t time to take care of myself,” and I get that because I was there. The physical and emotional demands placed upon teachers coupled with the ever-changing landscape of accountability make it difficult to take care of the needs of students and yourselves. But here's the thing I learned the hard way: you absolutely must take care of yourself. Life is short. In the same way you nurture your students, find simple ways to nurture yourself.


Jessica is Cofounder and Chief Academic Officer of LightSail Education, a literacy software company dedicated to improving reading outcomes for all children. She wrote earlier this year about how her cancer diagnosis, and becoming a new mother, taught her to embrace the present.

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