Photo: Kaneland High School teacher Bridget Sweeney, her husband Matt, daughter Lilly and son Jack. Courtesy Photo
by Susan O’Neill
KANELAND—Kaneland High School teacher Bridget Sweeney had gotten used to dealing with cancer.
Twenty years ago, when she was a high school senior, she was diagnosed with a malignant soft tissue sarcoma in her right arm. At the time, the doctors removed her tumor and she underwent radiation treatments. A year later, the cancer came back and spread to her lungs. Again, she had surgery to remove it.
In September 2011, Sweeney had just given birth to her second child and was set to come back to work around Thanksgiving when the cancer came back for a third time in her arm. Although she has had several recurrences of the cancer and multiple arm and lung surgeries, this time her doctors suggested that she have her arm amputated.
She opted instead for an aggressive arm surgery in which the doctors removed her soft tissue and replaced it with rods and skin and tissue grafts from her leg.
She had another round of radiation treatments and additional surgeries to rebuild her arm, as well as therapy to strengthen her arm and leg.
“It’s been a watch game for 20 years,” Sweeney said. “You get used to it.”
What she wasn’t used to was the outpouring of love and support from the Kaneland High School community.
English teacher Brooke Simon, a friend of Sweeney’s who lives near her, said multiple people and organizations at the high school came together to help Sweeney and her family through her recovery.
Fellow teacher Jenny O’Hara created a website where people could sign up to cook meals, as well as donate time and money.
While Sweeney was in the hospital, her husband had to pay $20 for parking every time he came to visit her. With the mounting medical and hospital bills, child care for their baby and 5-year-old son Jack, as well as other expenses, the donations came in handy.
When she came home, it was still a long time before her arm would heal and regain its strength. She was unable to hold her three-month-old daughter Lilly, so cooking was definitely out of the question.
Simon would bring the meals to her a couple of times a week on her way home. Often, people would put together an entire meal, complete with a salad and side dishes. Simon would also often bring messages and cards with good wishes from faculty, students and parents. People gave gift cards for groceries, meals out at restaurants, and a gift certificate for Merry Maids to clean her house.
“She was dealing with all of this and trying to be a mom at the same time,” Simon said. “We could empathize. We did anything and everything that we could to help her.”
Graphics teacher Nikki Larson said the website made it easy to coordinate the meals and donations.
“You could see what others were making so you didn’t overlap with them,” she said.
Larson said that Sweeney is such a positive person, everyone wanted to pitch in to help.
“We were happy to provide small moments of some sort of normalcy for them,” Larson said.
Sweeney said that this was the first time that she has shared her battle with cancer so widely.
Not many of the students were initially aware of Sweeney’s situation. That changed when Kaneland baseball coach Brian Aversa asked the seniors on the team if they wanted to raise money to help Sweeney and her family.
Each year, the seniors decide which individual, charity or organization will receive the proceeds of a Senior Night game the team plays with Batavia High School at Fifth Third Bank Ballpark in Geneva. Aversa said the students were overwhelmingly in favor of donating the money to Sweeney.
The team raised $5,000 for Sweeney during its “Pack the Park” game at the stadium in May.
Sweeney came back to Kaneland at the beginning of this school year. Simon said she is doing very well.
“It’s great to see her teaching again,” she said. “She’s a great teacher. The kids love her.”
Sweeney takes her cancer in stride. She said she knows that for some people, it’s a death sentence.
“For me, it’s a chronic illness,” she said. “It’s a condition that is manageable.”
She said that her cancer is not something that she dwells on. While it has been a long and challenging road, she said she has never allowed cancer to get in the way of her life.
“I have a loving husband, supportive family and two beautiful children,” she said. “I have a wonderful career teaching with a generous community of coworkers and amazing students,” she said.
She is still amazed by all that people have done for her and her family.
“It was a huge outpouring of support that was so unexpected and humbling,” she said. “I have never been in a community that has gone to such lengths to help. What was especially touching is that the students chose to offer their fundraising and giving opportunity to help us out.”