November/December 2021 Issue
October 25, 2021

Breast cancer survivor shares her journey to healing

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT United
making strides
Caption: During her cancer battle, Jennie Rook enjoys a light moment with her husband, Dave, and sons Jake and Tom. Photo provided.

When the younger of Jennie Rook’s two boys graduated from preschool a decade ago, the sight of the mortarboard on his small head set off alarms: What if she wasn’t around for her sons’ graduations from high school because of her newly diagnosed breast cancer?

“I was hoping there wasn’t going to be an empty seat in 2021,” said Rook, a member of the Clarence Teachers Association.

A middle school English teacher who loves books, Rook’s own life story took a dark twist at just 36.

“I found it myself,” Rook recalls, “on the side of my breast near my armpit. I was shaving when I found it.” She pauses. “I have trouble saying the word ‘lump.’ It’s like Voldemort.”

When she presented this discovery to the doctor, she was shocked that she needed a mammogram, biopsy and MRI. She thought: “You’re supposed to tell me ‘everyone has this.’” The lump was malignant, and Rook said she was kind of numb for a month. She had a mastectomy, and when pathology revealed more cancer in the breast tissue, she had four months of chemotherapy. The nasty spate of toxic liquids dripped into her body was followed by 39 rounds of radiation.

When she lost all her hair, it was startling.

“They don’t really tell you how devastating that is,” she said. “It’s physically painful and emotionally rocky. It’s like a thousand pinpricks in your head.”

Illness and fatigue slammed her often, and her sons motivated her to stay involved.

“It was a very intense time in my life. Thank God for my contract and sick time and health care benefits that our union negotiated. When you live it, the appreciation is ten-fold,” said Rook, a former building rep. “I can’t imagine the costs.”

Back at school once she was healing, she resumed teaching poetry, essays and novels to her students.

“I love their quirkiness and their sense of humor,” she said.

As a longtime English teacher, Rook knows her way around words. She wrote Keeping Abreast and Loving What’s Left: Redefining Normal After a Cancer Crisis, published by the Clarence Historical Society Press in 2014.

“Writing was really cathartic for me,” she said.

By 2016, Rook was strong enough to walk 39 miles from Washington, D.C., to Chevy Chase, Maryland, with a friend in a two-day breast cancer fundraiser. Even before her own diagnosis, she participated in Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walks with friends and colleagues to raise money for the American Cancer Society. She walked in the Buffalo Strides event this year.

Rook said her two biggest take-aways from the walks are that she can handle whatever comes her way, and she’s never alone.

This past June, Rook attended her son Jake’s high school graduation — and she plans on taking a seat at her son Tom’s graduation in two years.

Walk with Team NYSUT!

NYSUT has been a flagship sponsor of Making Strides Against Breast Cancer since 2002, and dedicated members have donned pink to walk in events across the state year after year.

This year’s events — held virtually and in-person through October — will add to the $15 million that NYSUT members have raised for research and resources for the American Cancer Society, said NYSUT Secretary-Treasurer J. Philippe Abraham, whose office coordinates the union’s Making Strides effort.

For more information on Team NYSUT, visit