Special Reports

ONLY ON ABC-7: Principal's cancer diagnosis brings campus together

ONLY ON ABC-7: Principal's cancer...

EL PASO, Texas - There is a belief that positive thinking has power beyond science and medicine.

Jennifer DeGraaf may be proof of that.

In June, DeGraaf, 39, was rendered speechless during a meeting, then suffered a seizure. She knew something was wrong. Her previous bout with cancer in 2013 -- stage three breast cancer -- left her a cautious survivor.

Unfortunately, she was right. Doctors found three inoperable tumors in her brain.

She was given eight weeks to live.

The mother of two boys, ages 6 and 9, got the devastating news just days after wrapping up her first school year as the new principal at Canyon Hills Middle School.

But at the start of the fall semester, DeGraaf decided she was not going to miss a day of work while undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.

"My school really picks me up. As much as I love my children and I love my family -- this is my second family," DeGraaf told ABC-7 shortly before dismissing the students for lunch. Decked out in a sparkly top and a black skullcap adorned with rhinestones, DeGraaf planted herself next to the double-doors leading to the cafeteria and greeted the kids with a high-five as they walked by.

"There were several days where I went to bed at night and I wasn't sure if I was going to wake up in the morning," DeGraaf said. So, she decided she was literally going to live everyday like it was her last. "If I didn't get the next day, that I could go to bed knowing that I gave them all I had that day," she added.

DeGraaf got the school on board with her outlook by announcing her diagnosis to the school administrators and other district leaders during the summer break -- asking for positive thoughts and smiles, and banning sympathetic looks and comments.

"I didn't want my illness to be the focus of conversation, or of anything, really," she said. "Let's just live. Let's just live and be happy."

The optimism is contagious.

"The way that they've handled the situation has brought the campus together like I've never seen," DeGraaf said.

Seventh grade English teacher Robin Figueroa agreed.

"When you work with someone who is that good, you want to step up and be that good as well," she said.

Even the students could see a difference on campus. Eighth grader Jalen Martin said he feels like students are more involved and engaged than when he first started at Canyon Hills in 6th grade, before DeGraaf was at the helm.

"She shows us that we can do anything despite any obstacles that come in our way," Martin added.

DeGraaf learned on Dec. 16 that she overcame a major obstacle. MRIs showed that two of the tumors are gone and the third has shrunk dramatically in size.

"So you can imagine my excitement to find out that all of the treatments are working," DeGraaf said. "Everything I've done for the last 6 months has been exactly what we have hoped for and more."

DeGraaf admits that there were times when she doubted herself; she wondered if she was setting herself, her family and her school up for disappointment if the results came back any differently. But now she believes that taking her own advice to be her own best friend paid off.

She lets her students know that, too.

"I always tell our kids: 'At the end of you questioning yourself, I want you to give yourself a nice swift kick,'" DeGraaf said with a smile. "And I want them to say, 'Regardless of what you face, you can do it.'"

It's a win for positive thinking.


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