Ocker had not kept her lack of hair from her students. So one afternoon, with her wig driving her to distraction, she decided she’d had enough of keeping up appearances. “I asked the students if they would mind if I went to the ladies’ room to take off my wig and put on my cap.” A student raised her hand and asked to witness the wig removal. The girl said she’d never seen anyone who’d lost her hair. Another hand shot up. Then another. Nearly every student in the class wanted to watch.
So Ocker stood in front of the class and took off her wig. Then she did a slow pirouette, letting the students soak in her gleaming pate from every angle. As she turned, she wondered how the teens would react. Would they be frightened? Disgusted? Shocked? Or would they laugh and point their fingers?
“There wasn’t a snicker to be heard,” says Ocker. Instead, the students began sharing stories of loved ones who’d suffered from cancer. They told of family members who’d survived the disease and of others who had not. It didn’t take long for Ocker to realize that her own personal struggle with cancer could have a silver lining.
Some form of cancer strikes 1 in 3 women in America and 1 in 2 men. Odds are, the disease would, one way or another, eventually touch every student Ocker taught. “They would have many important people in their lives succumb to this disease. I wanted them to know that these people could still have a life filled with hope, with love, with friendship, with faith.”
Right about then, Ocker made a promise to herself. Like her hairless head, her battle with cancer would not remain hidden. She would share her experiences with her students. No matter what the future might hold.
IF YOU READ NEWSPAPERS OR MAGAZINES, pass billboards on your daily commute, or watch television, you’ve seen the advertisements for cancer care. They use phrases like “Life without cancer” and “Making cancer history” and talk about cure rates and cutting-edge treatments. And all too often, they (and even, on occasion, this magazine) refer to “fighting” or “battling” the disease.
“It’s great to be upbeat and talk about battles and cures, but it can create false hope,” says Prescott. After all, calling something a battle suggests the possibility of winning. “We’ve made great progress against some cancers, but others have us stumped, at least for now.”
One type of cancer that has proved particularly difficult to treat is malignant glioma. This aggressive form of brain cancer strikes almost 9,000 Americans each year. Survival statistics are grim, and for the most deadly form, glioblastoma, life expectancy is only 15 months. Glioblastomas have claimed a number of high-profile victims: Oklahoma native and New York Yankee stalwart Bobby Murcer, entertainer Ethel Merman, Republican political strategist Lee Atwater and, most recently, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy.