Platte County teacher raising cancer awareness, not hiding effects of treatment

  ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Stephanie Jermain — a first grade teacher at Siegrist Elementary in the Platte County R-3 School District — recently told her students about her ongoing fight with cancer. Diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer at the end of of last school year, she recently finished up her eighth and final round of chemotherapy and decided not only to tell her class about cancer and its effects but used the opportunity to decorate her head in honor of the Kansas City Royals.

Stephanie Jermain just wants to be herself and help others.

To help achieve both goals, Jermain made what seemed like a difficult decision. She decided to tell her first grade class at Platte County R-3’s Siegrist Elementary about her fight, which she slightly covered up during the past six months.

Jermain decided to have a serious talk about cancer and revealing her bald head to the students — showing them the real-life effects of eight rounds worth of chemotherapy.

Ever energetic, Jermain plans to ditch her wig and go with the new look until her hair grows back. She went a little further and allowed Disa Rice — a friend and third grade teacher at Siegrist — to decorate her head with baseball stitching, a Kansas City Royals’ logo and a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. In permanent marker that she doesn’t plan to remove until the Royals win the World Series, a hopeful outcome for the longtime baseball fan originally from Wathena, Kan.

“If I’m going to show them my Royals head, I might as well tell them,” said Jermain, who has lived in Platte City for 22 years and taught first grade in the district for the past 15. “I told them all about cancer, how it kills growing things and it kills your hair. One of the little boys said, ‘Well, that makes sense Ms. Jermain why you’re always twisting your hair,’ because I was itching my head, and I would catch my kids trying to move their hair and they can’t.

“There’s a lot of stares because they’re not used to seeing me without hair.”

Jermain said she never cried when diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer in April of this year. Soon after, she underwent a double mastectomy and started her chemotherapy, which just recently came to an end.

The fight and effects don’t define Jermain.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Stephanie Jermain, center, poses with her first grade class days after ditching her wig to show the effects of her chemotherapy, which included total hair loss. She used her story to teach them lessons about perseverance and empathy.

Since the start of treatment, the only school days missed have been for her original mastectomy surgery and on the day of chemotherapy treatments. She even kept a promise to students to make it to field day in the immediate aftermath of her post-operation recovery.

Jermain plans to take care of other complications during the upcoming holiday breaks — breast implants around Thanksgiving and a hysterectomy around Christmas. Siegrist principal Jen McClure said Jermain has been strategic in her treatment with her students in mind, a testament to her dedication to the job.

Admittedly, Jermain occasionally crashes from exhaustion, but Jerry Jermain, her husband, jokes that while the chemotherapy shows some influence, it’s only managed to reduce his wife’s energy level to that of a normal person.

“You couldn’t tell for one second she’s going through treatment,” McClure said, “other than the obvious like the loss of hair — her personality level, her energy with the kids, her zest for life haven’t been affected for a second. She’s a ball of energy. I’ve always said I’d love to have a tenth of her energy on a good day.

“I thought that might change during her treatment, but it hasn’t.”

More difficult than her own diagnosis and treatments and changes to her work schedule came in the after effects.

Through this process, Jermain found out she tested positive for a recessive gene that contributed to her breast cancer and makes her potentially susceptible to other forms of cancer, the reason why she will undergo the full hysterectomy in the coming months.

“Just because I took care of the top doesn’t mean it won’t go somewhere else,” Jermain said.

Jermain also had her three children tested and found out that one of her daughters and her son also have the gene. This leads to real life consequences for both that include the need for regular checkups and potential preventative surgery for her daughter to avoid developing the same problems later in her life.

However, Jermain chooses to see it as potentially helping save their lives and at the very least making them aware. She advocates regular breast cancer checks for all women, while also urging all individuals to better know their family medical history when it comes to cancer and other diseases.

ROSS MARTIN/Citizen photo Stephanie Jermain — pictured at right, a first grade teacher at Siegrist Elementary in the Platte County R-3 School District — receives four free tickets ahead of Game 6 of the American League Championship Series between the Kansas City Royals and Toronto Blue Jays. Amy Acock (left), a represenative with Academy Sports+Outdoors and a North Platte graduate, made the presentation. The company heard about Jermain’s inspirational fight with an aggressive form of breast cancer and decided to donate the tickets to recognize her dedication to raising awareness for the need of regular self exams to help detect cancer early.

“I got (the diagnosis), and I figured out it is what it is,” Jermain said. “And I didn’t cry, and I said we’re going to fight this and that’s what we’ve done ever since. Now, did I want to cry and cry by myself when I had to tell my kids? Oh yeah. Was that the hardest thing in my life to tell my kids? Yes.

“Would I go through cancer and everything again to find this out for my kids? Yes.”

While Jermain remains determined to help others during her fight, the community continues to try and help her.

Past students have come back to offer help with household and classroom chores or brought food and/or flowers. The Platte County High School volleyball team made her a guest of honor on “Dig the Pink Night,” selling “Team Jermain” T-shirts to raise money for cancer research. The Platte City elementaries recently partnered with the Parent-Teacher Association in its annual Walk-a-Thon fundraiser, many of the students decorating bags that were placed around the high school track in Jermain’s honor. Part of the funds raised were then donated to the American Cancer Society.

Jermain and fellow Siegrist staff member Christy Szabo recently received a visit from The Hudson Project Cancer Charity, giving both a $500 donation help with expenses associated with fighting cancer.

The surprises kept coming last week.

On Friday, Oct. 23, representatives with Academy Sports+Outdoors surprised Jermain in her classroom with four tickets to Game 6 of the American League Championship between the Royals and Blue Jays, which ended with the Royals won 4-3 in dramatic fashion. She promised ahead of the game that the Royals wouldn’t lose once they saw her head.

“For me, it’s hard because I hate to take. I always want to be the one giving,” Jermain said. “What do you say? You’re overwhelmed. You’re thinking, ‘There are this many people that care about me?’ To be honest, I didn’t know how to deal with it because I want to be the giver. I don’t want to be the taker.

“To know that they still love me like that and I’ve touched their lives? I don’t have words to say how I feel, and I don’t have words.”

Jermain’s biggest gift through this process might be teaching her students and others in the building.

McClure said administration remained supportive of her decision to talk about cancer with her class in a safe and comfortable environment. The questions ranged from the potential of Jermain’s death to a former student asking if she had recently had a haircut after coming to school without the wig and with a baseball cap covering her bald head.

The hair will come back, but the lessons learned from its temporary absence can remain long after the treatment’s effects wear off.

“Hopefully, I’ve gotten through to them about persevering, going, fighting in what you believe in,” Jermain said. “And then also, having empathy for people that you see are sick. That’s what I said, ‘So if you saw somebody that was bald and you know have cancer, you can talk to them and understand because you know about me.”

Jermain remains comfortable with her appearance and her reality, saying the hardest part for her has been the use of fake eyelashes after they too fell out during treatment. The small things can be the hardest to overcome in her fight.

However, Jermain remains comfortable with herself — Royals head and all — and can’t spend much time worrying about minor inconveniences.

“I have too much to do in this world. I have too many kids to teach so I know I’m going to make it through this,” Jermain said.