M.L. Educational Center pep rally supports history teacher Jennie Susi

Education By Neyda Borges, Special the The Miami Laker Friday, July 19, 2013

"Stay Calm and Chemo On!" Students, colleagues and friends piled into the gym at Miami Lakes Educational Center wearing originally designed t-shirts made in the school's colors – teal and white. Though the sound system was on, bleachers were down and a photographer was snapping away, this was not an ordinary pep rally.

This one was for American History teacher, Jennie Susi. She has stage four ovarian cancer.  According to the American Cancer Society, ovarian cancer is the fifth deadliest cancer for women, often going undiagnosed far too long due to common and general symptoms such as swelling or bloating and pain in the belly, something that Susi knows from firsthand experience. Four different doctors told her she was fine.

It was the fifth doctor that finally diagnosed her with cancer. He instructed her to get her affairs in order because she would have, at most, two years left to live. That was seven and a half years ago. Susi, a lifelong Miami Lakes resident, decided that "statistics are just statistics. I'm going to be one of the positive statistics." 

In many ways she is. She has fought ovarian cancer and in doing so, has undergone several surgeries, chemotherapy and all of the physical and emotional ups and downs that accompany treatment. Cancer is not the only hardship she has faced either. 

Her husband has multiple sclerosis. Her parents both passed away, within a year of one another. Each of these alone is enough to break anyone's spirit, but not Susi's. Through it all, she has never lost her zeal for life.

"People always ask me 'How do you do it?' and of course there are days and times when I'm upset, but what good is that going to do?" said Susi. "How is that going to help me?"

Susi credits her family for her inherent optimism. Her parents, who taught her to be positive even in the face of adversity, and her brother, who taught her how to be happy.

"I have an older brother who has Down syndrome and he's just so happy, and pure in his joy. He was my greatest teacher. I try not to be wasteful of the gift I've been given – the gift of life," said Susi. "His purity radiates to me, so I can be happy with my life, just the way it is."

These are the lessons Susi brings into the classroom. She goes above and beyond, not only to prepare students for the End of Course Exams, but for life. She went to school on the days she was scheduled for chemotherapy, and if she was able to pull herself out of bed, she was back at school the next morning. 

When Susi didn't return to school, it was difficult for her students, friends and colleagues. Doctors found more tumors and needed to resection her colon, which required surgery, forcing Susi to take a leave of absence. Even then, she did not forget her students.

She assured them that she was okay and would "stay calm and chemo on." "Mrs. Susi is one of the most inspiring women I've ever met…even though she wasn't able to come to school, she made sure we were in good hands.

She always sent us updates on her health and surprise e-mails to encourage us and tell us she believed in us. It's like she was always thinking about us," said Carl Hughes, a rising senior in Susi's American History course last year.

Hughes's mother lost her own battle with cancer which made Susi's struggle even more personal for him. Susi made sure that Hughes and all of her MLEC family knew that she was alive and recovering, and that she was thinking about them. 

And all her school family was thinking about her. So when her students created a design for her catch-phrase "stay calm - chemo on," Helena Castro, MLEC activities director and Susi's friend for 17 years, had an idea. Castro had the design printed on t-shirts.

Teal and white, the school's colors, are also the colors for ovarian cancer awareness. She also included #teamjenniesusi, the hashtag trending on twitter while Susi was in surgery. Hundreds of shirts were purchased and all of the proceeds went to the Ovarian Cancer Society.

Then, once Susi was well enough, her school family surprised her with a pep rally in her honor. She walked into the gym to find everyone wearing the specially made t-shirts and together they posed for a MLEC family portrait. 

"Too often we honor and immortalize posthumously," said Castro. "Jennie lives life fully and demonstrates compassion and resiliency and it is that zest for life that has served as a source of hope and inspiration to so many."

Not only does Susi get up and fight every day; she finds the time, the will and the energy to also fight for others.