'Good morning, children - I've got cancer': How one head teacher told her pupils everything about her illness and its gruelling treatment
When head teacher Deirdre Murphy learnt she had lymphoma, she made a decision to tell pupils everything about her illness. It's taught them an important lesson, she tells Richard Garner.
Richard Garner has been Education Editor of The Independent for 12 years and writing about the subject for 34 years. Before becoming a journalist, he worked as a disc jockey in London pubs and clubs and for a hospital radio station. His main hobbies are cricket (watching these days) and theatre. On his days off, he is most likelt to be found at Lord’s or the King’s Head Theatre Club.
Wednesday 13 February 2013
For many headteachers, just battling against the closure of their own school might prove a daunting enough task. Deirdre Murphy, though, had another challenge to face at the same time – a diagnosis of cancer.
Deirdre, who has been head teacher at Harrowden Middle school in Bedford for the past eight years, was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 – just as the school, described as "good with outstanding features" by the education standards watchdog Ofsted, was going through the throes of a closure threat.
"The school was actually on the route up at the time," she says. "Our results were up – we'd had that Ofsted report in June 2011."
Then came the diagnosis. "It was quite a shock to me. A lot of my adult life I'd been concerned about getting cancer – it really was the worst thing that had happened to me.
"I'd had lumps on my neck but nobody took any notice of them. Then, one day, I was driving away from school and this swelling the size of a big golf-ball developed on my neck. I went to the doctor's and it was after that I got the diagnosis.
"I made a decision there and then, though, that I wasn't going to hide away. I made a decision to continue working through my treatment as my work at school is extremely important to me."
She then did an extraordinary thing – she decided to announce her cancer at a school assembly, having first taken care to tell two pupils who had either lost a parent or were facing the loss of a parent.
"That was a magical moment – the teachers were in the hall with the whole school," she says. "I thought, 'I've got to do this'. I told them, 'you've all heard about cancer, but you've all heard about cancer research, too – there are lots of people alive who have cancer. I have cancer but I'm going to survive because you're all going to help me'."
She adds: "This public announcement was important for many reasons but mainly to let them see that cancer didn't always mean the end; in fact, it was a journey that the whole of the Harrowden community (staff, students, parents and carers) would be part of.
"The assembly was in shock and a few tears were shed but many children came up to me afterwards telling me of their cancer stories and indeed many survivals. Through the next months of tiredness and baldness the community gave me enormous strength and encouragement."
At the end of the assembly both teachers and pupils burst out clapping. Over the next few weeks Deirdre would be greeted at school by pupils making the "thumbs up" sign and in one case, "all right, miss, you look good in that way". The pupil who had lost her mother approached her every day, saying things like, "keep cool, miss, you're going to do it".
In one way all this helped to bring the school community together in a bond that has remained tight as they continue to fight the closure proposal. (The school is facing closure because a neighbouring struggling upper school became one of the Government's flagship academies and decided to expand by becoming 11 to 16 and poaching Harrowden's pupils. The local authority's response was to reorganise the system, closing Harrowden and allowing both the academy and a lower school – which was also struggling – to expand.)
Outside of school life, Deirdre had another strategy to cope with her illness – for some time she had been a singer in a folk duo, Red Velvet, with her musical partner, Les Ray, and she decided to carry on accepting and playing at gigs to take her mind off her illness. "I was told that those who decide to carry on working through their treatment stand a better chance of survival than those who don't," she says.
Music, too, provided a therapy of sorts. "I am aware that there is some scientific research that indicates endorphins released through singing can help in the fight against the cancer," she says.
Les adds: "It was an escape from the gruelling reality."
"We did a lot of gigs then," Deirdre acknowledges.
During her third chemotherapy session at Addenbrooke's Hospital in Cambridge, she was told that the cancer – which had been an aggressive strain of the illness – had gone away and she has been in remission ever since. She still has to help her brother, Gerald, who was diagnosed with terminal cancer three weeks after she was told she had it.
"I was diagnosed with lymphoma in March 2011 and weeks after this my brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer," she says. "This was a shock for both of us. Looking back, I think we both helped each other and concentrated on the other's cancer rather than ourselves." She only had about seven days off school during the whole period to attend chemotherapy sessions – and used to catnap in her office when she felt tired by the strain of the treatment she was receiving.
When she given the all clear, she went into school to tell the pupils what had happened. "I said, 'I'm better and it's thanks to you guys for keeping me going'," she says. "They would just come up and give me hugs – and that's been tremendous for me, having that support."
Now she has decided to try and give something back to Cancer Research and Cancer Support – two charities that helped her as she battled the illness.
That is why from tonight at 8pm she will be taking in a 24-hour marathon sing-in at a pub in Cambridge, the Golden Hind, to raise funds for them.
"We chose Valentine's Day as a way of thinking about our loved ones who are going through the ordeal of cancer," Les says. "We chose to do it for 24 hours because living with cancer is a 24-hour ordeal."
In all, 40 different acts have chosen to support what is being billed as a music marathon. It is being organised in conjunction with the Helen Rollason Cancer Charity, set up in memory of the television sports presenter who died of the illness, and whose chief executive Greg Camburn just happens to be a folk singer on the Cambridge scene himself. Deirdre and Les's Red Velvet will play an opening set at the marathon and one towards the end, too. Perhaps unsurprisingly, they have declared their intention of remaining at the gig through the 24 hours of the festival.
Deirdre will also be wearing the trilby – similar to the one made fashionable by Rolling Stone Mick Jagger wearing it at their comeback O2 concert last December, although Deirdre insists she sported it first – that she donned during her illness.
Cancer Support is particularly close to Deirdre's heart. "It's a charity that's very much about supporting people living with cancer," she says. "The charity has opened many walk-in centres where there is freely available advice, therapies, support, counselling and companionship for all those people who are living with cancer or have had cancer.
"The charity aims to open as many of these centres as possible, I certainly know that – although in remission – I get wobbly from time to time and need that kind of support."
So one battle Deirdre has faced over the last couple of years has at least ended with the enemy being kept at bay for the moment. What of the other one, though? Well, the school is still facing closure, but Ofsted has told it its next inspection has been put back for a year because of the excellent report it got last time. It has achieved above-average results in the national curriculum SATs tests in English and maths despite serving one of the most disadvantaged communities in the country.
Its next scheduled report, therefore, is now in June 2014 – just a few weeks before the school is due to close. It would be an ironic last chapter to this story of it was told again that it was "good with oustanding" just as all the pupils were due to walk out of the door for the last time.
Anyone wishing to donate should contact justgiving.com/redvelvet
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