Staff and students from Port Charlotte High School have united to form a sort of human cocoon around Stefanie Flowers, an English teacher.The teacher found out she has advanced breast cancer in April. The bubbly petite woman was not shocked about the diagnosis — she dreamed she had the disease on March 17.
Dreams and premonitions aside, Flowers, 46, never imagined she would be facing such a medical monster.
“It’s a very surreal experience,” she said.
For the past month, Flowers has been struggling to face the harsh reality of having cancer.
She endures a schedule of nauseating chemotherapy sessions and bouts of fatigue and pain in her bones. She said it has been depressing watching her once abundant hair shed off her head and down the shower drain. She limited her hair loss by snipping off her nearly foot-long braid and donating it to Locks of Love. The organization provides hair for children with long-term medical hair loss.
What rattles the feisty, good-natured teacher most is her young children’s fear. Her daughters, 4 and 11, are very frightened about Flowers’ health.
Still, a sense of optimism helps keep Flowers going.
“I feel certain that I am going to get better,” she said. “I don’t have any options — I have children.”
Flowers biggest source of strength lies within her family, PCHS staff and her students.
Since Flowers announced her condition at school, help and support have been flooding in. Teachers offered to make dinners for Flowers and her family and staff have pooled their resources to compensate for lost wages.
As a show of love and solidarity from her students and staff, graduating seniors, colleagues and administrative staff wore pink rubber bracelets symbolizing the fight against breast cancer on their wrists at the graduation ceremony Wednesday evening.
Principal Steve Dionisio told the packed Lee County Civic Arena about the school’s support for Flowers and her fight.
“There’s definitely something to being a Pirate,” Flowers said. “I am so uplifted by the support.”
The school’s mascot is the Pirates.
Flowers has used her condition to inspire her students to not give up. During the last month of school, she joked with her students that if she could come to class with cancer they could do their work.
“She’s stronger than a lot of people I see,” said graduate Fitz Knights. “A lot of people would call it quits.”
Fellow classmate and recent graduate Valdeah Vincent agreed.
“You got to keep pushing it,” he said. “That’s my teacher.”
But some of Flowers’ greatest support in school comes from recent graduate Travis Ehrnsberger. The 18-year-old knows all too well what it’s like to have cancer. Diagnosed with malignant tumors in his chest and stomach cavity, Ehrnsberger faced months of aggressive chemotherapy last year.
Though he is not yet in remission, he is doing well and ready to go on to the next leg of his life, which includes heading to Hillsborough Community College. He raises his shirt and points to a raised scar that looks like a long T on his chest. The surgery mark reminds him of the battle he still faces. Ehrnsberger is expecting more surgery in his back in the future.
In the meantime, the soft-spoken young man is lending his support to his beloved teacher. During a recent conversation between the two, Ehrnsberger told Flowers she will be fine. After a half-hour of chatting and laughing, Flowers, sporting a sky blue bandana on her hairless head, seemed more relaxed.
“It just feels comical that I am going through this,” she said with a nervous chuckle.
Jim Buley, a colleague in the English department, has been another rock for Flowers. Buley’s wife went through breast cancer too. Not only does he understand Flowers, but he can empathize with her husband’s fears.
Buley gets choked up when he thinks about his friend and colleague dealing with cancer.
“This really hurts me a lot,” he said in a gentle voice.
But the camaraderie and concern he has witnessed inside the school have touched Buley.
“It amazes me how good people can be,” he said.