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Posted: March 4, 2011 12:00 a.m.

Melissa Ward a cancer crusader

Submitted Photo /

Melissa and son Jackson

Melissa Ward doesn’t wear a cape and she has no super powers, but if you listen to her friends, family and co-workers at Oak Hill Elementary, the fourth grade teacher is a superhero nonetheless, having just survived a diagnosis of breast cancer and a double mastectomy in less than two months.

Her medical odyssey began in January after a visit with her 37-year-old sister. Her sibling had found a lump in her breast and was recovering from a biopsy.

Ward, 31,  decided after the visit to examine herself, just to be on the safe side. She found a lump.

Her doctor checked and confirmed that a lump was indeed there. The closest hospital that could see her immediately was Athens Regional, so she went in and had a mammogram and ultrasound there a few days later. The Athens doctors suggested a biopsy. She told them to get their tools and had the procedure done that day. She was told results would come in later that week.

Since she was in class all day, Melissa asked doctors to call her husband, Billy, with the results. Several days later, he called her to see if she was coming home early, then asked her to do so. 

"I knew," she said. "When he turned around, I knew, and we both started crying… I just kept asking how this happened and why it was happening to us. I thought I was too young. It was so hard; we were both sitting there like, where did this come from?"

From that point, everything moved at rapid pace, according to Melissa. She went in and spoke with a surgeon, as did her sister, whose biopsy had also revealed breast cancer. They both went to Athens Regional and had their surgeries done at the same time, their parents splitting time between the siblings’ rooms.

Although the cancer was only on the right side, Melissa knew she didn’t want to take a chance. Her paternal grandmother had been diagnosed with breast cancer twice — once on each side — and had died from the disease when Melissa was in college.

"I thought if I just took the right side I would always be worried about the left side," she said. "My thoughts were that these things didn’t mean anything to me, so take them," she said. "I would rather not have them and live. I just wanted this thing (cancer) out of me."

"Whatever she needed to do to survive," said Billy. "I didn’t care."

Melissa’s cancer was not spreading but was growing quickly. Melissa wanted to make sure she told her students, since she would need to be out of school for the rest of the year for the surgery and the four months of follow-up chemotherapy. While she was out for a doctor appointment right before the surgery, one of the Oak Hill counselors and Melissa’s teaching partner, Jennifer Sealy, spoke to the kids, answering their questions.

"I miss her," said Sealy. "It is like missing a part of myself in a way. We have been teaching partners since Oak Hill opened 10 years ago. We ‘share’ classes — we split time with them 50/50. Over that time an extremely close friendship has developed. I was in her wedding and we have shared many milestones in our lives.

"The news of Melissa's breast cancer has had a huge impact on my life. I guess I was in shock for quite a while. I knew that I needed to keep Melissa strong so I tried my very best to stay strong for her, but it was not easy. She has handled this entire situation much better than many would. She has kept a positive outlook on everything and has been very strong."

Newton County School Superintendent Gary Mathews called Melissa an inspiration. "Melissa is certainly going through a most difficult time in her life. Her positive attitude towards life and serving as a teacher in our school system is inspiring."

The day before she was scheduled to go in for surgery, Melissa went in to work a little late, taking a breakfast out with her husband and son.

When they arrived at the school, Melissa saw a sea of pink and couldn’t get out of her car.

The staff was there in pink attire in her honor. A Ward off Cancer T-shirt had been made, so had buttons, earrings, ribbons and several other things. All the teachers were wearing the shirts, many had pink streaks in their hair, and a bald male teacher even dyed his beard in support.

Inside her classroom, her students were all wearing pink in support of their teacher.

"It was overwhelming," said Melissa. "I had actually planned on teaching that day. I did give a social studies test to those poor kids," she said. "My day consisted of crying, hugging, taking a bunch of pictures and talking with the kids. My boys cried more than my girls."

At the end of the day in a faculty meeting the staff presented her with a Kindle and an Amazon gift card so the book-lover wouldn’t have to lug books to the hospital with her when she went to chemo.

"Melissa’s breast cancer has brought a lot of awareness to Oak Hill," said Sealy. "We are all touched by cancer and it is something we all want to work hard to try to erase. She is a genuine person, and people want to help in any way they can. She still has a long recovery and treatment road to go, but I know she will do it with strength and be back here with us in no time.

"I really do wish that was tomorrow though. I really miss her!"

Ward is grateful.

"It has been so amazing," she said. "I’ve definitely felt the prayers and it is going to be a long year and a half, so I need them."

What’s amazing for Billy Ward is the strength of his wife.

"I feel like she is in a fight for her life and I can’t even throw a punch," he said. "But I am 100 percent with her, no matter what."


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