GERING — Leigh Anne Tofflemire walked down the hallway of Gering’s Lincoln Elementary School with a cap on. As she walked into the music classroom, it was a step toward feeling normal.
Tofflemire had been teaching for 22 years, with 13 years at Lincoln Elementary when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Growing up, Tofflemire loved music. She was involved in choir and show choir in high school and college. While she started college with the intent of earning a medical degree, she decided that career was not for her after she took her first biology test. So, she changed her major to education and has been sharing her love for music with students.
During the summer of 2016, Tofflemire had her annual mammogram scheduled. A couple months prior to the appointment, she felt a lump and decided to wait for her appointment. After going in and doing her mammogram, she received a call from the doctor that she needed to go back in because her mammogram was irregular.
“It’s so out of the blue and makes you think of your immortality,” she said.
After another mammogram and biopsy, Tofflemire was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Kelly, her husband, said, “Leigh Anne has always been a positive person and I have tended to be somewhat of a pessimist. As we sat there hearing that it was cancer, I had no doubt in my mind that she would beat this.”
As July came to an end, Tofflemire went in for her first round of chemotherapy. Her medical team decided that due to the size and aggressiveness of the cancer, they wanted her to start with chemotherapy and have surgery afterward.
“I think one of the hardest parts of seeing Leigh Anne going through chemo was feeling so helpless,” he said. “Even through two pregnancies, she never really complained about pain or discomfort. It was really difficult seeing her so sick and so down and really not being able to do much to make it better.”
Her chemotherapy treatment lasted for 18 weeks, with three weeks in between each treatment.
“I had six treatments of chemo,” she said. “It would really take me out of life for the first couple of days and it would take me about a week to bounce back.”
While the treatments took a toll on her body, Tofflemire’s openness in an ongoing journal on Facebook helped her family and friends support her. At the time of her diagnosis, Tofflemire had a 5-year-old and 7-year-old at home. She said going through chemo impacted her family and made her worry about leaving her husband and children behind. While the cancer did not test as being hereditary, Tofflemire still worries about her daughters since she and her mother both were diagnosed at the age of 43.
After her first treatment, Tofflemire lost her hair. Rather than wearing a wig, she decided to return to school wearing a cap. Being surrounded by her school family, served as a big motivator for Tofflemire. The staff and students would bring her gifts like cards, bracelets, meals and gift cards. They also organized fundraisers. The volleyball team recognized the month of October as breast cancer awareness month by holding a pink out game. They invited Tofflemire to show their support and raised money by selling t-shirts. Beyond the proceeds from the t-shirts, one of the volleyball referees signed over her payment that night to the cause.
With her focus on her health the priority, Lincoln Elementary School Principal Pamela Barker helped secure a substitute teacher to lower Tofflemire’s stress. Matt Hebbert substituted in the music room when Tofflemire did not have the energy throughout her chemotherapy treatment. Physical education teacher Chelsea Loomis also offered to take students when Tofflemire couldn’t teach music class.
“Leigh Anne is a quality music educator and is known and has support from the staff and community,” said Barker.
Barker shared how Tofflemire made herself available via telephone throughout her treatment and the staff and students made sure to show their support. On the classroom windows, the staff put a sticker that read “Fighting Together” with a breast cancer symbol made out of music notes to show support. Those stickers are still on several windows. Staff members also visited her on the day of her last chemotherapy treatment.
From diagnosis, the outpouring of support from the community changed her perspective on life and people. “It’s not the money you focus on,” she said. “Just the support and kindness from people knowing that you need a little extra help during those times.”
Tofflemire said the community’s outpouring of support following her diagnosis was almost overwhelming. “It made me want to live a better life and I hope that I’m trying to do that,” she said.
Throughout her treatments, the medical team had kept track of the lump and was fairly confident it was getting smaller. As the calendar turned to November, Tofflemire had her final treatment of chemo.
“That last chemo was a huge relief just to know I wasn’t going to do that anymore and I was never going to have that feeling again was amazing,” said Tofflemire.
She then waited a month to have the surgery. On Dec. 13, she had a bilateral mastectomy.
“When the pathology report came back, they found zero traces of cancer.”
Tofflemire’s body had responded to the treatments, which she said eases her mind a bit about the cancer returning.
With the surgery now behind her, Tofflemire would celebrate the holidays and miss the school Christmas program. While she knew that the program wasn’t going to happen because of how close it was to her surgery, she said, “it becomes a huge part of your life and for me not to do a Christmas program was really tough.”
To make up for the program, Tofflemire organized a spring program with her fifth and sixth graders.
“When that program was over, they gave me a standing ovation, which meant a lot to me,” she said. “It was just good to be back.”
This past summer, Tofflemire was two years post diagnosis, which she said feels like ten years at times an a month at others. While the chemo and surgery is behind her, her husband Kelly says they are back to a new normal life.
“I think the biggest change has been the side effects of the chemo and other drugs that Leigh Anne still has to take,” he said. “Just because she is ‘cancer free’ doesn’t mean that it’s over, or done with, or forgotten.”
She still has to visit her oncologist every three months for a checkup, but is back in the music room with her students and is feeling herself.
Tofflemire hopes that her success story inspires people to get checked when they feel something as early detection saves lives.
From the experience, Kelly said he learned that cancer sucks and it can happen to anyone, but “my wife totally blew me away with her mental strength and positive attitude.”
Cancer is something no one ever expects, but Tofflemire’s positive attitude and openness unified a school and community and forever changed her outlook on life.