For Elk Grove High School educator with cancer, all of life is a teachable moment

For Elk Grove High instructor, all of life is a teachable moment

One day last year, Alexa Rodheim Cutler showed her students her real hair.

She walked into her freshman English class at Elk Grove High School without a wig or a scarf, exposing a closely shaved layer of brown hair on top of her head.

"It was really brave," said April Rascon, one of the students in class that day. "I would be scared or insecure, but she rocks it."

That confidence is just one of the many lessons - besides reading and writing - that the 28-year-old teacher with Stage 4 breast cancer is giving her students.

"She taught me that you can't give up," said Rascon of Des Plaines. "She has fought through so much."

Rodheim Cutler doesn't look like she's been through a war, and most days she doesn't feel like it either.

Her hair has grown back, and she wears it stylish and short, swept across her forehead. A bright-colored cardigan covers the port in her chest where she received chemotherapy for 5½ hours just two days earlier. A wedding ring on her finger is a sparkling reminder of her June nuptials. After school she will likely do yoga, have dinner with her husband, and spend the evening watching a movie with their cats.

These typical nights are precious, though, after so many difficult ones.

In January 2014, Rodheim Cutler felt a lump in her breast during a regular self-exam, but the first doctors she saw were going to send her home without a diagnosis.

"But I knew something was wrong," she said, and insisted on a core needle biopsy. This test finally confirmed she had Stage 1 breast cancer, although two mammograms she had after the fact did not detect the cancer.

Rodheim Cutler had eight rounds of chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy, missing as little school as possible.

"There were days where I don't know how I got through the day," she said. "But mentally it kept me strong to be here, working."

She responded well to treatment and was told she had only a 10 percent chance of recurrence. But six months later, again something didn't feel right.

More scans, more tests. In February 2015 she was told the cancer was back. But this time it was Stage 4 - it had metastasized to her liver.

Rodheim Cutler talked to the man she had started dating only three weeks earlier.

"You don't need to stick around for this," she assured him. "This is going to be ugly."

He would have none of it. "We never talked about it again," she said. They were married five months later.

"He has made every day count," Rodheim Cutler says now.

She joined a clinical trial through Northwestern University. For six months the treatments kept the cancer from spreading, and allowed her to teach, keep her hair and enjoy her wedding.

By August, though, it was clear the drug had stopped working. Now she is back to chemotherapy - infusions that keep her out of the classroom for one day, but that's it.

"When you're teaching you are on a stage of sorts. You have to put away the things going on outside of the classroom and just be here with the kids," she said.

Rodheim Cutler is open with students about her cancer and has made it part of her curriculum on relationships.

"I use my experience to have them think about how they face challenges in their own lives," she said.

She encourages them to challenge authority and be their own advocates. If she hadn't, doctors would not have found her cancer in time.

She inspired a volunteer spirit in them by organizing a bake sale that raised $1,000 in three days last year for the American Cancer Society Making Strides Against Breast Cancer sector. More than 50 students were signed up to help with this year's sale.

Rodheim Cutler talks to her kids realistically about cancer and her specific diagnosis - triple negative breast cancer, which makes up only 15 percent of cases and is harder to treat.

"The life expectancy for someone in my situation is not good," she says matter-of-factly. "I'm already nearing the median survival range and I'm going to be past it soon, but I'm happy about that. I like defying expectations and being the exception to rules."

Rascon and other students have grown close to their teacher. They stop in her room after class.

"She is by far one of the best teachers I've ever had," said Rascon, now a sophomore. "Not only was she my teacher, but she is my friend too."

Rodheim Cutler said she hopes her students are also learning compassion.

"You learn something about what someone is going through and then you learn that everyone is going through something," she said.

As an English teacher, Rodheim Cutler believes in the importance of words. She'd like to change some typical cancer vocabulary.

The word "terminal" may describe her condition now, but Rodheim Cutler would rather use the word "chronic," since some people live with metastatic cancer for years.

"I'm not dying as we sit here," Rodheim Cutler said. "Or, really, I can say everybody is. We're all terminal."

She wants to change how people apply the word "survivor." To her, a survivor isn't just someone who has been in remission for a length of time - it is anyone who is in treatment.

"In the medical world you are a survivor as soon as you are diagnosed and no matter how long you live," she said. The idea that a cancer patient who dies has "lost the battle" makes her cringe.

"Some people might argue it's all semantics, but it's not. I think words go a long way," she said.

"It gives people a negative attitude when attitude is so important for the person fighting this and the people around them."

Rodheim Cutler is already building a legacy of awareness and advocacy that she works on every day.

"Some things I've had to let go of for myself," she admits, such as having children. And because she carries the BRCA genetic mutation, which heightens the risk for breast and ovarian cancer, Rodheim Cutler told her family members - she is the oldest of six siblings - of their need to get tested.

She'd like to start a foundation so people not covered for genetic testing can have it done.

And each day she will keep teaching her students important lessons, some from books and some not.

"It's not about cancer all the time," she said. "There are all these things that seem larger than life built into my life and related to having cancer, but the big message is that you can still live 90 percent of a normal life and deal with this."

She doesn't want pity. In fact, in the months leading up to her diagnosis she was unknowingly building up the strength she would need to face cancer.

She had started boxing, taking yoga, running and eating a clean, unprocessed diet in an effort to live the healthiest possible life. She was studying the principles of Buddhism, focusing on meditation and mindfulness.

She told friends that she felt strong enough to survive Navy SEAL boot camp.

"I still feel like that every day," she said.

  Alexa Rodheim Cutler and her students run a bake sale at Elk Grove High School to raise money for the American Cancer Society. From left are Sabrina Sanchez, Emma Saluski, Montserrat Cervantes and Angel Ortiz. Bob Chwedyk/
  Alexa Rodheim Cutler, right, and students raise money for the American Cancer Society at an Elk Grove High School bake sale. From left are Sabrina Sanchez, Emma Saluski and Angel Ortiz. Bob Chwedyk/
  Alexa Rodheim Cutler talks about her life with triple negative breast cancer and the life lessons she can give her students at Elk Grove High School. Mark Welsh/
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