Herald JournalHerald Journal, Nov. 3, 2003

Joanie Hanson is back teaching after bout with cancer

By Julie Yurek

Joanie Hanson is almost back to where she wants to be.

She returned half-time to her Howard Lake Elementary kindergarten classroom this fall, and may be teaching full-time after the first of the year.

"I'm still me, but changed," she said. "I'm just happy to be here."

One year ago, Hanson, 55, of Howard Lake, was diagnosed with esophagus cancer.

After three rounds of chemotherapy, six weeks of radiation, and three surgeries, one each on her stomach, ribs, and esophagus, Hanson has been in remission since February.

Hanson first noticed a problem with her esophagus last summer when she was eating chicken soup. She couldn't swallow the little chunks of chicken very well, she said.

She had an endoscopy done to determine what was wrong.

She was told that she had cancer the same day Sen. Paul Wellstone died, she said. The tumor was two centimeters big and was in the muscle wall of her esophagus.

She didn't lose weight, which is a symptom of the disease, she said.

Esophagus cancer is usually a man's disease, Hanson said. She didn't smoke, which can contribute to the disease.

Hanson had originally thought she'd be gone from teaching about three months after being diagnosed, but it turned into much longer. She was able to teach the first six or seven weeks of the 2002-03 school year, but could not return to finish out the year like she'd hoped. She did get a chance to see her class before it left for the summer, she said.

Hanson got very sick from the chemo and ended up with pneumonia after her surgeries.

She lost 30 pounds and her hair. She was on a liquid diet for six months, from November to April.

She had a feeding tube in her abdomen, and pic lines in her arms. X-ray was used to guide the pic lines in her veins from her arms to her abdomen. She had to have more than one pic line replaced either because of infection or because it stopped working.

She could not swallow anything because her esophagus was gone from surgery and radiation burned what was left to ensure no tumor remained.

Her new esophagus is made from a portion of her stomach. She had to re-learn how to eat, which was very hard, she said. Small pieces are a must or else there is a risk of choking.

She recovered at her mother-in-law Gladys Hanson's home, which is only a short distance from her and husband Keith's home.

She sees a dietician in Buffalo to help gain weight. She is on a high calorie diet but it caused her to have a gall bladder attack the weekend before school started.

It's a gift to be able to do regular activities like drive, eat, work, e-mail, and talk, Hanson said.

Return to teaching

Teaching is Hanson's life, she said. She and Keith live in the country near South Haven. They have a son, Scott, 22.

She has taught at Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted for 33 years. It was her first job after college, she said.

When Hanson couldn't return to teaching last year, it was very hard for her, she said, but she finally accepted it.

When she attended the teacher workshops this fall, she spoke to the staff and thanked them for all their support. She received a standing ovation.

Teachers, staff, administration, and the community have given her so much, she said. She is very grateful and thankful to the community, she said.

She feels blessed to know how many people care, she said.

There were prayer chains going on at area churches and even on the Internet. Students sent cards and letters, and her e-mail overflowed with messages, she said.

The community conducted a fundraiser in January, which helped out a lot with medical bills, she said.

Hanson's sister, Sharon, of Florida, is a writer and is writing a book about Hanson's experience. Hanson is providing photos of her journey with cancer for the book. Photography is one of Hanson's hobbies.

Hanson's outlook on life is very positive. "It's been a journey," she said.

When Hanson was diagnosed, she and Keith decided they didn't want to know what percent doctors predicted for recovery.

The Hansons will probably never know what caused her cancer, she said. Hanson is relieved that her identical twin sister, Jean, of Willmar, was tested and is fine.

Her relationships with family members were close before her diagnosis, but have since gotten closer than ever, she said. "Keith has been a big support."

Her mom stayed with Hanson at Gladys' for a while, and her siblings visited, called, and e-mailed a lot.

"You have to have good thoughts," she said. "My life has come back."

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