On her toes

Jane Gilfillan is ready to get back to teaching at York Junior High School after battling breast cancer and surviving.
Jane Gilfillan is ready to get back to teaching at York Junior High School after battling breast cancer and surviving.

Her new, short hairstyle is stylishly spiked -- its regrowth the only evidence of the change in Jane Gilfillan. She's a survivor now, gifted with a new perspective, yet cursed by new fears.

Gilfillan, 51, is as giddy as a gradeschooler to be returning to the classroom this week after a year of surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and sickness.

"People take work for granted," said Gilfillan, a ninth-grade global studies teacher at York Junior High School. "When you've been told you can't work, it's a different story."

Her battle against breast cancer has attracted generous support in her western York County community, which Gilfillan has served during a decade on the York County Council, from 1992 to 2002, and in almost 30 years of teaching in York and Clover schools.

To bolster her morale after her cancer was diagnosed in September 2006, there were letters and notes from students and colleagues and prayers and visits from well-wishers. Students made "Go, Jane!" stickers for their lockers, purses and backpacks.

Now, Gilfillan wants to get back to normal, to "put this year behind me," as she says. But she also wants to reach out to others who are facing the same fears and insecurities.

She wanted to return to school as herself when classes begin Wednesday -- not wearing a wig or a hat -- and she's working to get comfortable with her new 'do, a dramatic switch from the shoulder-length blondish-brown hair she's always sported.

"I'm just thankful to have hair; I'm not complaining about it," Gilfillan jokes. "It's just hard to get used to."

And she has started to speak about her experience, making her debut talk during a recent women's luncheon at First Baptist Church in York. "I think I cried the whole week preparing for it."

Her cancer was diagnosed less than a year after a November 2005 mammogram, and because of that, Gilfillan warns that women shouldn't depend on the routine screening to detect cancer.

In August 2006, she began to notice the tissue in her right breast was hard. She had a mammogram in September, followed by a biopsy that confirmed she had cancer.

It was stage three out of four, and Gilfillan underwent a mastectomy, which included the removal of a large mass. Three out of 16 lymph nodes tested positive for malignancy.

"I was so scared of cancer, because my dad died of cancer," said Gilfillan, daughter of the late J.B. Comer, a county councilman who died in 1990.

Her sister, Diane Howell, principal of York Comprehensive High School, said Jane feared the chemotherapy because their father had become so sick from it. Fortunately, today's treatment is more tolerable, and the family rallied to support her.

"There is so much out there that has to be dealt with, and you're very sick and you don't feel like dealing with it," said Howell, one of Gilfillan's four sisters. "As sisters, we divided up what needed to be done and we did it."

She began eight weeks of chemotherapy in October, followed by two weeks off, then seven weeks of radiation. Four days after she finished the radiation, she felt another lump in her left breast.

She had a mastectomy on the left breast in March, and fortunately the lump turned out to be benign. She resumed eight more weeks of chemo, finishing in mid-May, two weeks before her youngest son graduated from high school.

"Just let me live to graduation," Gilfillan recalls praying, breaking into tears at the memory. "I wanted to see my son graduate."

And she did. Her son, Mitch, 18, finished high school in May, and Gilfillan was there. "It was hard, but I was glad to be there," she said. Her oldest son, Blake, 22, attends Clemson.

One of her worst fears about the treatment was losing her hair. Her husband, Terry, tried to console her. "I told her, 'You've been with me for 29 years, and it didn't bother you, me being bald,'" he said.

Terry, who is disabled with epilepsy and a degenerative disc in his back, took on the role of caregiver. "A man doesn't know what to say," he said. "You don't know how to reassure."

To celebrate the end of chemotherapy, her sisters took her to Lake Lure, N.C. Said Terry: "It's a good feeling, to have your last chemo and your last radiation."

During her treatment, Gilfillan often wrote in a journal to record her thoughts. "It was like my therapy, I had so much time on my hands," she said.

"After you get the initial scare out of your system, you're ready to start fighting," she explained. "I think time helps, because you just start working on your inner self. You've got a lot of time on your hands, and your faith grows stronger."

Like all cancer patients, she lives with a fear of cancer returning. But she also is using her experience in a positive way, serving as a mentor to others through a Lake Wylie support group.

As for her students, Gilfillan said she can't wait to be with them once again. "They keep you young and alive," she said, "because you gotta be on your toes."