Loving Each Day
By Kathryn Walsh | Photography by Alexis Emm
Some teachers dread September. Kathy Conese looks forward to it.
She adores her job, teaching kindergarten at Allen Road Elementary School in North Syracuse. After working as a software engineer, she taught fifth grade for 19 years before switching to kindergarten about five years ago, when the North Syracuse Central district moved to a full-day program. Part of the fun, she said, is how joyful kindergartners are.
“They just love life,” Kathy said. “So, they’re wonderful to be around, because that’s why we’re here, just to enjoy every day.”
That’s a lesson she learned the hard way. Fifteen years ago, the results of Kathy’s routine pap smear were irregular. Her doctor wanted to do some tests, but reassured her that everything would probably be fine. It wasn’t.
One Wednesday afternoon in March, she was teaching her fifth-graders when her principal came to the door. Kathy’s doctor was on the phone, and he needed to talk to her. It couldn’t wait. While another teacher stayed with her class, Kathy went to answer her doctor’s call.
“He just said that what I had was bad and that my husband and I needed to be in his office at 6 a.m. the next morning, and that my teaching for the year was done,” she remembered.
Early on Thursday morning, her doctor delivered the news: Kathy had an invasive, fast-moving type of cervical cancer. He warned her not to look at anything about her cancer on the internet. The prognosis wasn’t good.
On Monday, just four days after her diagnosis, Kathy underwent a nine-hour-long surgery, followed by an eight-day hospital stay and a long and difficult recovery.
“I just missed the next three months of my life,” she said.
One of the hardest parts of that terrible time was how traumatized her students were. She was there one day, and gone the next.
“I didn’t know what to tell them when I left that Wednesday,” she said. “My school handled it beautifully, but they were 10 years old, so, then they worried. It was awful.”
She was able to go back and see them once before the school year ended.
Kathy had the support of her husband, three children, coworkers and a large circle of friends, but she wanted to connect with someone else who had survived the same type of rare and aggressive cancer she had.
“When you’re going through something, you want somebody who’s been through it,” she said, “because there are so many unknowns.”
So, at every six-week checkup, Kathy asked her oncologist, Dr. Douglas Bunn, if he had found a survivor for her to contact. And every time, he said no. She decided to stop asking.
Instead, Kathy found support close to home. She started going to a support group for women affected by gynecological cancers, and she got involved in Maureen’s Hope, a foundation run by her friend, Susan Bertrand, in honor of Susan’s sister, who had died from the same type of cancer Kathy survived.
The organization provides support and services to help people affected by cancer — everything from helping with bills to organizing spa days for moms of children battling cancer.
“[Susan] does phenomenal things for people,” Kathy said.
Coming close to losing her own life and spending time supporting families going through the same struggle inspired Kathy to make the most of every opportunity. Recently, she made a spur-of-the-moment decision to accompany her son, Michael, on a volunteer trip to teach English in Cusco, Peru, during her February break.
Staying with a local family was a highlight of the trip, she said.
“You can go and you can be a tourist,” Kathy said, “but when you live with the people and you’re immersed in their culture and their food, you try so many amazing things.”
Back home in Liverpool, gathering around the table with her family is one of Kathy’s greatest joys. Her three children still live in the area. Two are engineers, like Kathy was and her husband still is. The third is a kindergarten teacher.
Every Sunday, they gather for a big family dinner and sit at the table late into the night. Those dinners are a simple joy; as Kathy knows, those are the best kind.
Cancer was a difficult journey, she admitted.
“But what it taught me was really to enjoy every day,” Kathy said. “I get up in the morning and be the best I can be to the people around me. And that’s all we can ask for, right?” SWM
For more information on Maureen’s Hope, visit maureenshope.org.