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Gulfport Elementary joins teacher in battle against cancer

GULFPORT

The whimsical yellow sun sporting dark glasses and a broad smile, dog bowls sprinkled with glitter and birdhouses in a rainbow of colors spoke of childhood exuberance and optimism. The arts and crafts lining a hallway, decorating a conference room and beckoning through exterior glass walls at Gulfport Elementary School were painted and glued and framed for a reason.

"To help my teacher," said Jailah Williams, 9. "She's nice, always happy and convincing.''

Convincing?

"Yes. If you say, 'I can't do this,' she'll say, 'Yes, you can.' "

Now third-grade teacher Beth Myers must marshal such positive talk in a fight for her life. Myers has multiple myeloma, a cancer of plasma cells that begins in the bone marrow. In the months since her diagnosis, she and her husband, Bruce, and their 10-year-old daughter, Isabella, have found themselves enveloped in a cocoon of family, friends and colleagues who want to help. Friday, Jailah's art and others from her third-grade class, along with offerings from school staffers and their families, will be for sale at Gulfport's Art Walk to help with expenses.

This week Myers, 43, paged through the family calendar, its squares filled with reminders and topped with Post-it notes, as she talked about her illness.

"As early as June, I had pain in my thighs,'' she said. "I thought I had torn my muscle. When I went back to school in August, it was painful just to get up and down the stairs and decorate my classroom."

A fitness buff who eschewed elevators and worked out regularly at the Y, Myers went to an orthopedic surgeon, who prescribed Celebrex for what he thought might be arthritis. While the medicine eased the pain, she still couldn't exercise. She asked for an MRI.

She showed up for the results on a Friday, the weekend before Halloween.

"I was grading papers in the waiting room,'' she said, recalling how relaxed and unsuspecting she was.

That day, she learned she had a tumor. "I was in shock."

The multiple myeloma diagnosis came on Nov. 10.

Her oncologist set up appointments at H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center and Research Institute and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' Myeloma Institute for Research and Therapy. She decided to be treated in Arkansas.

"It was right for me,'' Myers said, explaining that her doctor thought that because she is younger than the typical multiple myeloma patient, she could endure the more aggressive treatments the Arkansas facility offered in the form of tandem stem cell transplants.

She has traveled to Arkansas three times. Her father made the first trip with her and most recently, both her parents and a sister. Bruce and Isabella went during the winter break, when she traveled for her first round of chemotherapy. Children are not allowed on the chemotherapy floors, so Isabella spent most of the three weeks with Bruce's family in Memphis.

The memory of being separated from her daughter for Christmas made Myers reach for a box of tissues. She also missed Isabella's birthday and Valentine's Day.

"We just know this is what we have to do and hope it will all work out so I can celebrate lots of birthdays and holidays with them," she said.

Her husband speaks of his wife's "quiet dignity" and bravery.

"Amazing" is how she describes the man she's been married to for almost 14 years.

Bruce Myers, 50, a teacher at Dixie Hollins High School, said he and his wife have tried to keep their daughter's life as normal as possible.

Besides the emotional toll, the family is concerned about finances. They are accustomed to helping others and have found it difficult to be on the other end.

"We're just a little family in Gulfport trying to make the best of this," Bruce Myers said.

Myers will return to Arkansas in mid March, for the first of two critical stem cell transplants.

The survival rate for multiple myeloma has improved over the past two decades, said Dr. Jan Moreb of the University of Florida's department of medicine.

"We still say there's no cure, but five to 10 percent of patients would live long enough to be called cured, usually more than 10 years,'' said Moreb, whose focus is multiple myeloma and stem cell transplantation.

Autologous stem cell transplants — using a patient's treated stem cells — carry a low risk and about half of the patients will go into remission, he said. It's the type of transplant Myers will undergo in a few weeks at the University of Arkansas center.

She presses on. What gets her through?

"My faith, my family and my friends,'' she said. "I've got a 10-year-old daughter.''

Myers has taught at Gulfport Elementary for five years.

"I've got other wonderful teachers, but she is awesome," principal James Pribble said.

"The class that I have is so much fun. We were having a great year," she said. "I miss them and I know they're in good hands."

Two of those hands belong to co-teacher Betsy Kinsley, who sat by Myers' side in her Gulfport home as she told her story, organized shipments of cards and letters from their class and delivered belated Valentine's notes and candy this week. And it was Kinsley who organized the arts and crafts fundraiser.

"Betsy has been amazing,'' Myers said.

Asked about the fundraiser, she smiled.

"It's humbling, but I'm so grateful," she said of the outpouring from her school.

"It's amazing how many children and adults wanted to share their time and their talents,'' arts teacher Craig Petersburg said.

Nine-year-old Azia Moses simply wants Mrs. Myers to "come back and teach us" and to feel better. So do Zayquan Evans and Jacob Fitzgerald, both 9, who pointed out the pieces they created. Tucked among the collection was a framed piece with cutouts from a card Myers had sent the class after talking to each child by Skype.

"Seeing and hearing you really made me happy,'' it said.

"Your kindness makes grey clouds go away. Don't forget to ask yourselves often, 'What is the next right thing for me to do?' And do it! Lots of Love, Mrs. Myers."

It will not be for sale on Friday.

Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at wmoore@tampabay.com or (727) 892-2283.

fast facts

To help

• Gulfport Art Walk, 6 to 10 p.m. Friday along Beach Boulevard.

• National Foundation for Transplants, transplants.org/donate/bethmyers.

• Spring cleaning yard sale, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., April 14 at
1951 46th St. N, St. Petersburg.

•International Myeloma Foundation, myeloma.org.

Gulfport Elementary joins teacher in battle against cancer 02/28/12 [Last modified: Friday, March 2, 2012 6:30am]
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