PLANTING A NEW SEED
Garden creator’s latest mission grows out of battle with breast cancer
Nancy Burke assumed her annual mammogram in September 2018 would be as routine as all the previous ones.
Instead, she received the diagnosis no one ever wants to hear. Burke, a special education paraprofessional at Haverhill High School, had stage 1 breast cancer.
“I had no worries,” Burke, 59, recalled. “I didn’t feel sick, I had no symptoms, and lo and behold, there it was.”
Immediately, Burke’s doctor at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport scheduled a biopsy of the lump on her left breast for the very next day.
She met with Dr. Peter Hartmann, director of the Gerrish Breast Care Center at Anna Jaques, who performed her lumpectomy on Oct. 11
Following that initial surgery, Burke underwent an additional surgery to address problems that arose during her recovery. She later had a port installed in order to start chemotherapy treatment. Four months of intensive chemotherapy followed, which left Burke bald and battling a range of side effects.
She was weak and suffered from nausea and dizziness. Because of the risk of germs, she could encounter in public places, she was unable to drive or even go food shopping.
Following her final chemotherapy treatment in February, Burke then began radiation treatment, which was administered every weekday for four weeks.
The treatment was difficult, Burke said, but she is grateful she caught the disease as early as she did.
“I was totally shocked and blown away that I had this, because I went (the previous year) and I didn’t have it,” Burke said.
A caring presence
Burke is known around Haverhill High for launching a farm-to-school gardening program with her special needs students.
She has said she was inspired to start the school’s Learning Garden when she realized the students she was working with did not know how food was grown or where it came from.
She began the program in 2012 with a salsa garden contained within a single, accessible raised bed. It allowed her to bring together her special education students with other students from within Haverhill High School.
The project expanded to include a berry garden contained within a second raised bed and a stew garden in a third raised bed. It also fostered the growth of a garden club made up of students with differing abilities, at different grade levels.
Over the years, various groups of students — from the football team to the wrestling team to recruits in the Junior ROTC program that trains reserve officers — have united as a community to help one another and to make the garden program a success, Burke has said.
Today, about 75 students in several different special education programs are involved in the hands-on learning initiative. Burke has won statewide recognition for the program, too, including being named a Kale Blazer by the nonprofit Massachusetts Farm to School organization.
Burke’s absence much of last school year was tough on her students, who happily welcomed her back in the spring after a 7 1/2- month absence. She said when her students saw her walk out to the school bus to greet them on her first day back, they started screaming and jumping up and down.
“They were so excited,” she said.
A personal cause
A year out from her diagnosis, Burke now has a new lesson to impart — one of encouraging others to get a mammogram every single year.
“Everyone knows me for planting the gardens at the school, but now I want to plant a new seed for everyone else: If they see anything funky on their body, or something weird — get it checked,” she said.
Burke touts the care she received at the Gerrish Breast Care Center at Anna Jaques — from the receptionists and volunteers to the nurses and doctors — with aiding in her recovery.
“They are the most loving, caring individuals,” she said. “If you need a hug, you get it. If you need a kiss, you get it. If you need a piece of chocolate, you get it.”
The greater Newburyport area is fortunate to have such high-quality care available locally, she added. Patients are able to access treatment close to home without needing to travel into Boston, she said. But because Anna Jaques is affiliated with Boston hospitals, if a need arises, a case can be shared and consultations can occur with doctors at the larger medical institutions.
“Everyone in this area should be extremely grateful for Anna Jaques,” Burke said.
Burke is honored to be among the cancer survivors chosen to take to the runway on Oct. 20 for Anna Jaques’ annual Celebrating Survivors — Couture for a Cure Brunch & Fashion Show at Blue Ocean Event Center at Salisbury Beach. She will join not only survivors, but also caregivers, friends and family who have been impacted by cancer on the pink carpet for the celebration of courage, beauty and strength.
Reason to smile
Burke is grateful for the immeasurable love and support she has received throughout her ordeal. Family members took her to all appointments and ran her errands.
Her students and colleagues at Haverhill High rallied around her, too. In February, the Hillies boys and girls basketball teams held a fundraiser to benefit Burke and recent graduate Madison Copeland, who has battled kidney cancer.
For the “blackout” game, players sold lanyards, wristbands and key chains that matched the theme of the evening. Everyone in attendance was urged to dress in black to show support for Burke and Copeland.
Burke’s nurses from the Gerrish Breast Care Center and her doctor, Colleen Yavarow, were among those who turned out for the event. All proceeds were donated to both women to assist with their medical expenses.
Today, Burke continues to recover, but says she is doing well.
Although she can tire easily and sometimes battles nausea, she said, “I feel really good.” She has embarked on her new mission — to share her story.
This fall, she teamed with other cancer survivors at local farmers markets to talk about her experience in hopes of promoting early detection. She also urges everyone to slow down a bit, smile at others more, and avoid taking the little things — like being able to go to a grocery store — for granted.
“You never know what the next day will bring,” she said. “Embrace every day. Make the most of everything you have.”