How teaching helped my breast cancer journey

04 February 2015
Jessica Weller teacher with cancer
Jessica Weller before, during and towards the end of her treatment.

As a healthy, young woman living the teaching dream overseas Jessica Weller never expected to have her world turned upside down within minutes. But that is exactly what happened after finding a lump in her left breast almost two years ago.

Jessica, a former intermediate teacher and alumni of the Faculty of Education, was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer, HER2-positive, at the age of 27 while living in London.

After blacking out for a split second and letting the tears flow, Jessica’s determination to fight the illness quickly kicked in.   

Despite knowing she had months of chemotherapy, surgeries, loss of hair and hundreds of medical appointments ahead of her, Jess was also determined to turn up to class to teach her students on as many days as possible. 

“Being a teacher is more than just a job. It's a vocation and a life style. It gives you the ability to pass on knowledge and instill values and passion into the minds of those who will create the future. New Zealand needs inspired individuals to educate our children and it is so important that we have people on the front line that are out there to make a difference.”

During a talk at TedX in London, Jess told a story of when her wig fell off during a physical education class. She was demonstrating a forward roll.

“Without thinking I propelled myself forward. Of course, my wig fell off and 25 seven and eight year olds stood before me completely mortified. I did my best to laugh it off. 

“The most amazing thing about that lesson was that the students didn’t say anything, except one girl. Miss, why don’t you have any hair? she asked. In the most honest and appropriate way I could I replied: “I got really sick and I lost it all,” Jess says. 

“That was a turning point in my healing process and a catalyst to uncover the unknown and break down the fear that surrounds cancer.”

She says it was also the moment she realised there was lack of education around breast cancer, particularly for young women. 

Since then, and now that she is clear of cancer, Jess has taken her career in a different direction. She has teamed up with the Breast Cancer Foundation, The Cancer Society, Coppa Feel and other charities to help educate women and men about breast cancer.

“I am on a crusade to educate young people about cancer in the hope that there is more awareness around the disease to ensure less people are diagnosed and those that are have the best chance of survival through early detection.”

She says her experience as a teacher has allowed her to be more confident in communicating with others, which builds stronger relationships that foster trust and respect.

“Becoming a teacher was the best career choice I made. The transferrable skills you learn in this profession are invaluable and assist you in so many other areas of life. Communication, compassion, understanding and patience are all qualities that have developed within me since I became a teacher and was diagnosed. Now that I am educating young people about this and connecting with those who have cancer these are the qualities that help me inform and educate as many people as I can in an appropriate way.

“We all have a story to share and in doing so we have the ability to change the thinking of others. Education is a catalyst to be able to share valuable knowledge that could one day save a life.”

Next month Jess is going to the United States to gather resources and educational material to help boost campaigns and education provided by organisations in New Zealand. As the trip is self-funded, Jess has set up a Give a Little page to help. 

Today (February 4, 2015) is World Cancer Day. Cancer is unfortunately New Zealand's biggest cause of death and in 2010; 21,235 people were diagnosed and 8593 loss their battle against the disease according to the Ministry of Health.