“I need the research to keep me alive. It is that simple.”
These stark words from Spencerport school speech therapist Deb Casler, who lives with cancer, make as much of an imprint as the treads of thousands of sneakers worn by walkers in this month’s Making Strides events. NYSUT is a flagship sponsor of these autumn walks to raise money for the American Cancer Society. The money is earmarked for education, research and support services for women and men with breast cancer.
“As a person living with metastatic disease, a mother, a wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend and so much more, I am beyond grateful to have the money going towards research,” said Casler, a member of the pinked-up Spencerport Teachers Association. “One of the medicines that I take now just came out of clinical trial when I started on it. Now it is a standard treatment.”
At one point in her cancer journey, she said, she was told to leave her job and say good-bye to her family. She sought a second opinion, and she’s still here, and still working.
Casler said she caught her cancer early after feeling a lump. She was diagnosed in 2015 at stage 0. By the time she had a double mastectomy it was stage 1, and this was followed by aggressive chemotherapy. A year later, she felt a pain in her back, and a scan revealed the unwelcome sight of five tumors. She had more surgery.
Because of recent advances in genetic medicine, the tumors were broken down into genomes so that drugs more specific to her condition could be used, she said.
Grateful for the money going toward research, Casler also appreciates the other help received from the ACS: She was able to get a wig, for example, and makeup classes when she was going through chemotherapy.
Breast cancer is no stranger in Casler’s life. She was diagnosed four years ago, and one of her closest friends and colleagues was diagnosed this past summer. She has many other family, friends and colleagues who have been affected by the disease.
At the last two superintendent conference days in Spencerport, she spoke about breast cancer and how it affects one in eight women.
“There’s too many of us,” she said. “There’s a power in talking and knowing.”
Casler, who has worked for the past 15 years as a second-grade teacher, has walked in Making Strides for the past five years. Her colleagues wear pink Spencerport TA shirts.
“My family members wear pink. My husband even dyes his beard pink for the walk,” she said.
A familiar face at the same walk, held in Rochester, is Spencerport colleague Jacquelyn Lanpher. She has made the annual trek for 20 years, starting out those first years walking with just her mom and a dog named Jaeka. “As soon as I put the pink bandana on her, she would know,” said Lanpher. One year, she sprayed the dog’s coat pink, but confesses the canine was not too happy about that.
Now she walks with Sandy, a yellow lab mix rescue dog- who will be playing “Sandy” in the school production of “Annie”—and her fellow teachers at Spencerport, who have banded together.
“It has been great to see the size of the group grow each year,” said Lanpher, a high school special education teacher who serves as the union’s secretary.
The STA sets up a tent and a tailgate party with coffee, hot chocolate, granola bars and apples. President John Kozlowski has been a regular for the past 10 years, and now he has added a Real Men Wear Pink baseball cap and socks to his attire.
In addition to providing a team for the Making Strides walk, the local also hosts a fundraiser each year at a local business to raise money for the cause.
“Its further evidence of the power of our union,” said Kozlowski, who teaches middle school at the Alternative Learning Center. “We not only represent our members to directly maintain and enhance the terms and conditions of their employment, we also get involved in causes like this that can impact not only our members but our communities as well.”
Kozlowski has experienced loss because of breast cancer, and this provided motivation for him to get the union more involved in efforts to find a cure.
“I really kicked our efforts into supporting the ACS into high gear when my good friend and colleague Sonia Basko was taken from us way too soon from cancer,” he said. Basko, a former Penfield teacher and union leader, became a member of NYSUT staff as a social justice advocate, special projects coordinator, and staff liaison to Making Strides. She died in December 2016.
Kozlowski said his fundraising through the Real Men Wear Pink campaign has raised $10,000 in the past five years.
In New York, walks have been held in Buffalo, Jamestown, Syracuse, Albany, the Bronx, Plattsburgh, Hudson Valley, Brooklyn, Jones Beach, Central Park, Utica, Queens, Staten Island, Rochester and Westchester. Two more walks are scheduled for this Sunday, Oct. 27, at Riverhead and Glens Falls, where NYSUT officers will be walking.