Breanna (Bre) Swanson’s dream job was to work as a kindergarten teacher at Albertville Primary in the St. Michael-Albertville School District. She completed her student teaching at the kindergarten center a few years ago and knew she could not see herself anywhere else.
“There was such a sense of community right away and soon I gained a whole new family,” Swanson said. “I knew this is where I wanted to be.”
After finishing her degree, Swanson worked at the school as a ReadingCorps tutor for a year before being hired as a teacher for the 2014-15 school year.
“I was setting up my own classroom and hanging my Ms. Swanson sign, and I could not have been more excited,” she said.
But a significant bump in the road has put that dream on hold. Swanson’s health troubles began a year ago, when she found out she had a rare form of ovarian cancer and would need surgery to remove a six-pound tumor. After surgery, her surgeon felt confident the tumor was completely gone and that they would not need to worry about it any more. Swanson was thrilled and resumed her normal life. However, at the beginning of March her surgeon’s promise unraveled. A PET scan showed a mass where her tumor had been, and Swanson found out she would have to leave the classroom for the rest of the year to begin chemotherapy.
Telling her students
Knowing treatment would begin quickly, Swanson wrote a note to her students’ parents right away and sent it home. The note explained her situation, asked parents to share the news with their child however they wanted, and said they would discuss it as a class the next day.
“I had such a pit in my stomach the next day, knowing we would need to talk about it as a class,” Swanson said.
Swanson read a book to her class about a boy who had cancer, and paused throughout the book to answer questions from students and explain how the book related to what she was about to go through.
“When she came in to tell me, she didn’t talk about herself once,” Albertville Primary’s principal Dr. Ann-Marie Foucault said. “Being 25 and being diagnosed with cancer for the second time. She talked about her kids. It was all about the growth of the kids, and how were the kids going to take this. It really speaks to her character.”
On her last day of teaching before chemotherapy began, Swanson said she read her students the book “The Invisible String,” about an invisible string that reaches from heart to heart among those who care about one another, even if they are not nearby. She gave students a string to tie on their backpacks, and she keeps a string on her keychain as a reminder for herself.
Swanson’s class, and all the other kindergarten classes as well, have been able to purchase shirts that say BREathe. The students wear them every Monday and to special events such as the kindergarten music concert. Proceeds from the shirts have gone towards helping with Swanson’s medical bills.
Teachers at the school organized a Culver’s fundraiser night in her honor, and Swanson said she has received baggies of money from students who raised money for her treatments by selling lemonade. Albertville Primary’s art teacher, Julie Bauman, has taken the lead on multiple efforts to support Swanson. She hosted an art night where kindergarten teachers could purchase their child’s artwork, with all funds going to Swanson. She also took doughnuts to all the district’s buildings, and staff members made free will donations for them. Staff in other buildings also made donations to wear jeans to school for a week, and that money went to help Ms. Swanson as well.
“It’s just amazing how generous people have been,” Foucault said. “I can’t say enough good things about all of our staff members who have gone above and beyond. It really shows what a caring community we have here with our kids and our staff.”
In addition to the fundraisers, Swanson said her students and their families have been writing encouraging letters to her, and Swanson has been writing back.
“I just cannot even begin to thank everyone for all of their love and support during these past several weeks,” Swanson said. “There have been so many beautiful moments throughout my cancer journey where I have been touched by such kindness. It has all shown me there is such beauty in the world even when you feel like you are having the darkest day.”
Efforts to help Swanson have benefitted other cancer patients as well. A close friend of Swanson’s created BREathe bracelets and is selling them on Facebook, and the proceeds from the bracelets go to making BREathe baskets that are passed out to other cancer patients receiving care at her clinic. One of the class’s parents purchased a BREathe bracelet for each student in the class. Swanson said they made their first basket delivery a few weeks ago and have more to ready to deliver.
“It was such a wonderful experience,” Swanson said.
Only a few weeks ago, Swanson received news that the cancer has been completely eliminated from her body. She and her doctors had been hoping to see the a size reduction in her tumor and lymph nodes to show that the chemotherapy was working, so Swanson said it was a shocking and amazing surprise to learn the cancer was gone.
She now has three more weeks of chemotherapy, and is looking forward to life beyond cancer treatments, and to being Ms. Swanson again. She plans to return to her classroom in the fall for a fresh class of kindergarteners.
“She’s a really good teacher,” said one of her current students, Reese Johnson. “She plans parties and different fun stations.
“She’s always looking for extra things for her kids, to further their learning and to make it fun,” Foucault added.