This phrase has basically encapsulated my whole life but never did it ring more true and test my commitment to it than in 2020.

Now, don’t jump the gun and assume I’m referring to just the pandemic. As mind-numbing as that was (is!) this is bigger than that… this was something that had been on my radar in terms of if it hitting “next level” since I was 18 years old. 

The pandemic? That was old news by October of 2020 for me when the real battle began.


When I was 18, I had my first scare. I have very dense breasts and apparently, those suckers always make life just a bit harder overall when it comes to checking them for any potential inconsistencies or abnormalities. It’s harder to ‘see’ what is going on in there, so at the tender age of 18, I got a needle biopsy. Thankfully, it was negative.

Fast forward to the age of 46, when after a regularly scheduled mammogram, they saw something.

“Don’t worry,” they said.  “It should be nothing.”

I had the biopsy, and they were right. It was nothing.

Then, they saw something again the next year at age 47. Biopsy. Nothing.

At the age of 48, I was scheduled to go in the spring for my annual (I cannot stress enough how extremely important these annuals are, ladies). That would be the spring of 2020. That was when the world shut down. Thanks to Covid, any type of self-care, amongst the many other things in our life, were put on indefinite hold.

By the time the world started moving somewhat forward again, the earliest I could get an appointment was October. I was in the middle of student teaching an English class at the high school I am currently employed at when the call came in.

Same thing as the past two years. They saw something and said, “this is a pattern with you, we are sure it’s nothing.”

Only this time when I received the biopsy results, it was something.

Being a student teacher, I had my mentor by my side so I stepped out and took what I thought would be another “Negative!” call as I had the past two years in a row. Well, you could say 3 times a charm, or “of course it’s different this time, it is 2020 after all!” but however you say it, the fact remained, the biopsy showed atypical cells and they advised breast surgery to remove them.  I remember standing in the corridor of the High School, and just leaning back with my head against the wall thinking “you have got to be kidding me.” 

I met with the breast surgeon in a complete state of disbelief a day later. A total out of body experience as she went through the procedure with me.  The reassuring fact was there was only 5-15% of the atypical cells being cancerous and they wouldn’t know if there was cancer lurking in them until they did a full run on them. Just a 5-15% chance.

Though I never won an actual Lotto with the chances of winning being so slight, I would “win” this unfortunate one. Yes, they found cancer. 5-15% was the lucky range I apparently fell into.  Back into surgery I went to get my lymph nodes removed to check to see if it spread (it didn’t).

Then after healing from lymph node surgery, into radiation I went at the start of 2021 where as I write I have only 8 sessions left. Hallelujah!

I often get asked “how the heck are you doing all this? New teaching gig? Kids? Daily radiation? Yet you are bouncing around with all the energy in the world and have such a great outlook.”

I’m doing this because of the perspective I have that I am reminded of every day. I sit in the waiting room at the White Plains Cancer Center with those that have it far worse. I talk to other survivors whose battle is far more intense and ongoing than mine will most likely ever be. I work at a high school that I love, with colleagues that amaze me every day with their kindness, and students that literally make me hopeful for the future. My family lifts me up with love, and my friends? The check-ins and care packages and quick “how are you today after the treatment” texts are a constant.

Finally, I do it because I’ve lived through enough challenging stuff to know you have two choices when stuff hits the fan in life, move forward or give up.  And if you recall…

I didn’t wake up to give up.

(Jenn urges everyone to continue the necessary self-care no matter what you have going on in your lives. Being “too busy” or feeling “I will wait until the pandemic is over” can literally be the difference between early detection and stage 4. Don’t put it off- do it now.)

Jennifer Tonetti Spellman is a three-time career changer who just became certified and earned her masters in Secondary English Education. After a decade in advertising and over a decade as a professional photographer, her final chapter of teaching English Language Arts to High School students is finally a reality.

Leave A Comment!
Share This