EL PASO, Texas - A principal who inspired teachers and students with her positive attitude during her battle with brain cancer is taking the message to a broader audience.
Jennifer DeGraaf had received good news in December 2016 that her brain tumors had shrunk in size. However, nine months later, she learned that they were back, and they had spread to the meninges, the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.
"Once the cancer spreads to that area of the brain, there's not a whole lot left for treatment," DeGraaf told ABC-7.
But instead of giving up, DeGraaf is digging in her heels and doubling down on positivity. The Canyon Hills Middle School principal is taking time off from work to be with her family and to urge students across the borderland to keep their heads up during their own personal struggles.
"I think it's one of the hardest things for us to do as humans is just stay positive and just say, I know what I have, I know where this is going, but how can I do it like a champion," she told ABC-7.
Degraaf invited ABC-7 to watch her deliver a motivational speech at Santa Teresa Middle School in October. She told the kids her story, starting with her time as a student in that very school, to giving birth to a baby boy before graduating, to pursuing a career in education, and leading up to her fight for her life -- first against stage 3 breast cancer, then brain tumors.
"I focused on my why," DeGraaf told the students gathered in the school auditorium. "My kids. Students. You."
DeGraaf urged the seventh- and eighth-grade students to find their "why." For her, it's more of a "who." DeGraaf constantly referred to her children, ages 7,10 and 22, during her presentation, telling the students that she is constantly preparing her kids to "live life without their mama."
"They really don't know mommy's sick. Because I don't want to act sick," she told ABC-7. "I want to focus on living."
Her message touched teachers and students alike.
"I know exactly where she's coming from, because when they told me I had breast cancer, I said, 'Not me,'" said Yvonne Rivera, a teacher and breast cancer survivor. "And sure enough, I got it," she added, after she paused to compose herself.
Eighth grade student Ashlyn Espinoza said DeGraaf's message was empowering and inspiring. "I'm really thankful for my mother because you never know when it's your last day," she added.
DeGraaf relays that message without saying those words.
"I don't want to call them the last days because I don't feel that way. I feel like I have many more to go," she said. "So, here I am doing everything I can to beat the odds. And we'll see. We'll see. Time will tell."
This Breast Cancer Awareness Month, DeGraaf urges everyone to listen to their bodies -- something she admits she didn't do early enough. DeGraaf said she let the cancer in her breasts go too long undiagnosed, eventually spreading into her brain.
Those who would like DeGraaf to speak at their school can reach her at (915) 667-2304.