For three Central Elementary staff members, “everything has been extra special” in the past several weeks and months.
The three women — Megan Kampmann, school nurse; Beth Peters, a first-grade teacher; and Mary Schultz, maintenance/custodian — all were diagnosed with cancer this year and all three are either in remission or have been deemed cancer free.
“Everything has been extra special this year,” Schultz said. “You appreciate things so much better. Your eyes are wide open.”
This holiday season, all three women said they are thankful for the support of family, friends and co-workers at Central Elementary.
“If you have to be sick, this is the place you want to be,” Peters said.
“I felt like I always had somebody in my corner,” Kampmann added.
Each sat down with The Missourian to share their journey through cancer and back to health this year.
At 28, Kampmann, said when she first found a lump in her breast, she didn’t think much of it. Because of her age and a lack of risk factors, neither did her doctor.
Soon, Kampmann began to notice the lump getting bigger. A biopsy and mammogram were scheduled, and not long after, “the doctor called me in and told me it was cancer.”
Kampmann was diagnosed with Stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma Jan. 25.
“I burst out in tears,” she said. “My first immediate thought was my kids.”
Kampmann has three children, Makayla, 9, Easton, 4, and Jace, 3.
Kampmann’s daughter took the news the hardest, but then became her biggest supporter.
“She came to my first chemotherapy session. She came to surgery and she came to my last chemotherapy session,” she said.
Makayla wanted to shave her head when her mom lost her hair, but settled for dyeing the ends of her hair pink to show her support.
She passed out fliers for a trivia night fundraiser and pitched in however she could.
Kampmann said she lives a healthy lifestyle, doesn’t drink or smoke and she doesn’t have a history of cancer in her family.
“I was shocked,” she said. “I had absolutely no risk factors whatsoever.”
After an initial moment of panic and terror, Kampmann said she kicked into nurse/mom mode, where she focused intently on what needed to be done and taking steps toward that.
The following month, Kampmann had surgery to remove the tumors. She elected to have a double mastectomy.
She was told that the cancer hadn’t spread to her lymph nodes, but a week later, she found out that it had spread to her lymph nodes and she would need radiation.
Doctors already wanted her to have chemotherapy because of her age, but radiation was added to her treatment plan.
“They wanted to treat it as aggressively as possible, but they weren’t going to do radiation until they found out it had traveled to my lymph nodes,” Kampmann said.
She had a second surgery to remove the infected lymph nodes in March and began chemotherapy in early April.
The chemotherapy is nicknamed “The Red Devil,” and “It was the devil,” Kampmann recalled.
She was only able to withstand two treatments before being admitted to the hospital for several days.
“I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t drink. I couldn’t sleep,” she said. Already thin, Kampmann lost 7 pounds in six days. She was back in the hospital the following week.
“I was really, really sick,” she said.
Severe abdominal pain sent her to the hospital again, before doctors switched her course of treatment to Taxol. She had weekly chemotherapy for 12 weeks.
Kampmann couldn’t work, but subbed as she was able.
Kampmann was treated at Mercy, at the breast cancer center in Ellisville. Her medical oncologist was Dr. Huq, surgical oncologist was Dr. Oruwari and her radiologist was Dr. Craft in Washington.
During treatments, Kampmann’s mother moved in to help out with the kids.
“I couldn’t lift anything over a gallon of milk for six weeks, and I had a 2-year-old,” she said.
Family members and friends offered to take and pick up the kids from school.
“The biggest thing I am so thankful for is all of the support I had,” she said. “Everybody has been amazing.”
Friends, co-workers, family members, friends of friends, Kampmann said, all brought full meals, sent get-well cards and things to let her know they were thinking about her. The art teacher made a quilt from Central Elementary T-shirts, and another friend sent a comfort quilt.
On Superhero Day, a student was wearing a cape and “Megan’s Fight” shirt, which was sold through a fundraiser to help Kampmann through the financial burdens of cancer.
Kampmann complimented her ensemble and she responded “Do you know why I wore this shirt today? Because you’re kind of like a superhero.”
Another teacher, Dianne Schwentker, who has been battling ovarian cancer for several years, also provided support to Kampmann.
Later, her father moved in to help out as needed.
Her last chemotherapy treatment was Aug. 3 and then started on radiation, which lasted five and a half weeks.
The radiation caused burns, open sores and bruising.
She finished radiation Oct. 2 and was deemed cancer free Oct. 9.
“I’m so relieved. I’m glad to not constantly be in treatment.
Now, Kampmann has to follow up with her doctors every few months and have reconstruction surgery and port removal this summer.
Kampmann said she wants to show her kids there is more to life than work and school, experience the world with them, teach them things and learn new things herself.
She and her daughter were baptized in June together.
Kampmann is a 2006 graduate of Union High School. She became a registered nurse through East Central College in 2011.
For some time, Kampmann worked at a hospital in Elizabethtown, Ky., doing orthopedics and medical surgical overflow and then worked at St. Clare, Fenton. In 2014, she came to Central Elementary.
“I absolutely love it here,” she said. “The kids make it totally worth it. It’s that little bit of sunshine each day.”
Mary Schultz, 55, Union, has worked for the Union School District for 21 years in maintenance/custodial work. She served 17 years at Union Middle School and has been at Central Elementary the past four years.
Schultz said she had been feeling weak and lethargic for months, but she continued on her twice-weekly 4.5-mile walks and didn’t miss work.
“I think that’s what kept me alive,” she said, “to just keep going and not sit down and give up.”
It was when she could barely make it through her walks that Schultz said she knew something was seriously wrong.
She went to the doctor on and off, where her symptoms were classified as viral.
Eventually, she called her mom’s doctor, Dr. Ostrom, who took the bloodwork and was able to give her symptoms a cause.
Schultz was diagnosed with Stage 4 leukemia.
“He told me that I had leukemia and needed to see a cancer doctor immediately,” she said. “I was shocked.”
She immediately had surgery to install a port and began treatment the following week.
She told Principal Leslie Lause about her diagnosis and “the school district and teachers were so supportive.”
The following week, she started chemotherapy, which she had Thursday and Friday. She was sick over the weekend and back at work Monday.
Schultz went to chemotherapy every 28 days for two days. The first day’s treatment was 7 1/2 hours and the second day was two hours.
The further along she got in treatment, the sicker she felt.
“But I kept going. I never quit,” she said.
She was treated at the Mercy Cancer Center in Washington by Dr. Hueser.
“They were wonderful. The nurses and doctors at Mercy took such good care of me,” she said.
Schultz has a family history of cancer, with a grandfather having died of a different type of leukemia and a sibling also fighting leukemia.
Still, she didn’t suspect she had the disease.
She began chemotherapy at the same time as Kampmann and Peters. All three were declared cancer free in October. She found out Oct. 1.
“I have been so blessed in my life. It could be worse,” she said. “I never thought ‘Why me?’” she said.
Schultz said her faith in God kept her strong.
“God wasn’t a quitter,” she said.
Schultz’s mother, who is 88 years old, attended every treatment with Mary, and encouraged her to have a strong will.
“I had faith that it was all going to be OK,” she said. “You’ve got to believe that you can do it.”
Schultz said her four children checked in often, as well as a nurse, co-workers and friends.
Treatment began at the end of March and ran through Sept. 1.
Schultz said toward the end of treatment, she doubted she would make it.
“I was so sick,” she said.
She gathered her family.
“It was the worst ever,” she said. “I remember that day so clearly.”
Her son-in-law encouraged her to take some steroids to help her feel better.
“I didn’t want any more poison,” she said. But she took the medicine and hours later she was feeling better.
“I feel amazing not having to do treatments anymore,” she said. “When they called me and told me I was cancer free, I cried. I was so happy.”
When she found out she was cancer-free, a student approached her and said “Mary, I have been praying for you every day, me and my grandma, and it worked,” she said. “The support from everybody . . . I was so overwhelmed.”
During chemotherapy, teachers took a collection to help her.
People brought her favorite comfort items and crossword books to help her pass time during chemotherapy — candles, Propel water, lotion and more.
“When they say that Central is family, they are family. We are all here for each other and they were here for me. It warms my heart,” she said. “It gives you strength when people are there for you.”
Schultz said this year, she had family photos made and visited the ocean.
She is now in remission and continues immune system therapy.
“I thank God I beat it,” she said.
Beth Peters grew up in Union. She and her husband Brad now live in Eureka.
She has been with the Union School District for 20 years, including 13 years at Central and seven years at Beaufort Elementary.
Cancer isn’t a new word for Peters. Almost 30 years ago, as a teenager, Peters was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, bone cancer, in her knee. She lost her left leg to the cancer at age 15.
“After I had cancer the first time, I was always scared it was going to come back,” she said. “I was very aware of everything around me.”
Still, she was shocked when she got the news.
“Twenty-nine years later, I was shocked when I got breast cancer,” she said.
Peters found a concerning area on her breast and was sent to a breast surgeon, who did a mammogram.
“They weren’t planning on finding anything, but that’s when they found something,” she said.
She was diagnosed about one month after Kampmann, at the end of February this year with invasive ductal carcinoma.
“There were a lot of feelings all at once — sadness, shock, anger, fear. But I knew I had a good support system. I always have.”
In fact, she was with a group of friends from school when she got the news and told them right after she found out.
“And I just thought ‘I don’t want to be anywhere else but here right now,’” she said. “This building (Central Elementary), there’s so much support here. And I knew I would make it through, just like last time.”
Cancer runs in Peters’ family. Her mother had breast cancer.
Because of her family history, she elected to have a double mastectomy. She was treated at St. Luke’s Hospital by Dr. Limpert.
Before she left for surgery, the entire staff dressed in pink to show support.
“They’re amazing, thoughtful people who would do anything for anybody,” she said.
People sent plants, cards, dinner certificates, made a teddy bear from Central T-shirts.
The cancer had spread to one of her lymph nodes, so Peters had to undergo radiation after surgery. She had 33 treatments of radiation, daily, at the Mercy Clinic in Chesterfield.
Peters said both her husband and her brother, Brian Viehland, attended every appointment with her. Then, her brother would type a report for other family and friends to keep them in the loop.
Students didn’t know their teacher was sick until she left for surgery. She came back to school the final week of the school year.
“It felt so good to be back and feeling normal,” she said. “You just can’t take life for granted.”