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Living with cancer Hanby Elementary physical education teacher committed to students, being active amid diagnosis

Alisa Franklin stood at the corner of the gym as fifth-graders from Jenny Findell’s class walked towards her, grabbing a spot in front of a large screen.

One student stopped as she neared Franklin.

“I’m so glad you’re back,” she said.

It was three days into the new school year and Hanby Elementary’s physical education teacher greeted many of the familiar faces, some of them by name.

These students last saw Franklin in April, a month before the end of the school year. They had gathered at her desk, as they typically do before the start of class, when Franklin explained why she had to leave early: She was having brain surgery.

“You know, I’ve been having headaches, right?” she told them. “They are going to go in, they are going to get it and hopefully, everything will be fine.”

Recovery was going to take six to eight weeks — all during the time of several end-of-the-year events she organized for students. But she had a plan, she told them.

If she felt well enough, she was going to stop by field day, visit fourth-graders during their lunch when they go to the Columbus Clippers game and make an appearance during the last week of school.

“You know I don’t do idle very well,” she said. “I have every intention of stopping by if I feel OK.”

For two years, Franklin has been living with cancer — first breast cancer in 2021 and then metastatic breast cancer that spread to her brain last year. She has been open about her health journey while teaching at Hanby, sharing information and updates with students and families through letters and social media.

And while cancer and its treatment has taken a physical toll on her, it hasn’t dampened Franklin’s outlook on the future or her focus on what matters most.

“It’s her students,” Franklin’s husband, Dave Franklin said. “They have given her purpose in her fight with cancer.”

***

Colorful inflatable obstacle courses, slides and games filled the open fields at Westerville South High School. Parent volunteers stood alongside each station. WSHS athletes walked towards a tent where organizers could explain their roles of the day.

The stage was set for the first combined field day for Hanby and Emerson elementary students at the high school.

For months, Franklin envisioned a space where she could bring elementary students and their high school peers together. A combined field day gave the younger students an opportunity to see the high school athletes in their element and catch a glimpse of what awaits them when they get older. For the older students, it was a chance to serve as role models and relive fond memories of past field days.

And for Franklin, the event linked the two worlds of her teaching and coaching careers.

She started in 2002 at her alma mater — Westerville North High School, where she graduated in 1997 — as a volleyball coach. In search of a teaching job, she reached out to Principal Jim McCann by leaving a note on his chair, requesting an interview.

She interviewed with and was hired by McCann and WSHS Principal Joy Rose for a position split between the two high schools. But after a year, she was transferred to Annehurst and Whittier elementaries — a change she embraced. Her physical education teacher at Robert Frost Elementary, Mr. Justice, inspired her to become a PE teacher and ultimately shaped her approach to her classes.

His lessons introduced students to the wide world of health and fitness, from a primer on roller skating to testing out the pommel horse in a gymnastic unit.

Franklin remained at the elementary level in Westerville for 15 years, leading lessons at Hanby, Longfellow, Pointview and Hawthorne during that time.

She left the district in 2016 after her husband accepted a coaching job at Carson-Newman University in Knoxville. They moved to Tennessee and she returned to teaching high school health and physical education classes while there.

Her departure was short-lived: She returned to Westerville after three years to be closer to family and in 2020, she was back in the district as an elementary physical education teacher at Pointview and Hawthorne. She moved to Hanby and Emerson elementaries when a position opened up the following year.

And in October, long after she had mapped out many of her plans for the coming year, Franklin was diagnosed with Stage 2 breast cancer.

****

The sounds of kids at play and industrial-sized fans echoed onto WSHS’ parking lot. Franklin stepped out of the car with a baseball cap on her head and a timer on the clock.

One hour. That’s how much time she negotiated with her mother, who drove her to Hanby and Emerson's field day festivities.

It has been four weeks since Franklin’s brain surgery. Her doctor declared the procedure a success and prescribed rest for the first two weeks of recovery before she could begin moving again. She walked in short bouts for days to rebuild her stamina when she finally stepped onto WSHS’ open field.

The visit marked her first school appearance since her surgery and served as an opportunity to wish students a happy summer before they wrapped up the school year. Amid the bustle of hundreds of students, parents and staff members on the field, it didn’t take long for someone to spot her.

Teachers embraced her. Parents welcomed her back. Students waved hello, some wrapping their arms around her for a quick hug. They told her how excited they were to see her. They wanted to know how she was feeling. One student asked to see her scar.

"It's like a hockey stick," she told him, removing her cap to reveal the shaved part of her head where the surgery occurred.

Franklin has shared every step of her cancer journey with her Hanby family since her first diagnosis in 2021. Her classes reach every student in the building so she wanted to inform the entire school community and be in front of the situation.

The principal sent a letter to families, explaining Franklin’s diagnosis and her plans to continue teaching while undergoing treatment. The school’s media specialist shared children’s books to classroom teachers to help students understand cancer — and what physical changes to expect to see in Franklin during her treatment.

The response was immediate.

Parents and staff members embraced her with support, from encouraging words to hand-written notes and drawings from kids. People shared emotional stories about loved ones living with cancer or had gone through it.

“One of the things when you’re stuck with cancer, you have no idea what you need at that point in time. I didn’t know what I needed. And someone would say, ‘Hey, I’m here and I’m going to make you food.’ I couldn’t have asked for anything else.”

As the chemotherapy treatment started and the school year progressed, Franklin posted periodic health updates threaded with optimism on her personal and her class Facebook pages. She didn’t shy away from a question or a conversation with a student who had also been touched by cancer.

In April 2022, Franklin had a double mastectomy to treat her cancer. She rang the bell to mark the completion of her chemotherapy and radiation treatments.

Two months later, she started experiencing pressure headaches — a possible sign that cancer had returned. Following conversations with her oncologist and a CT scan, Franklin was diagnosed with metastatic cancer that spread to her brain — one year after her first diagnosis.

Like the previous year, the principal sent a letter to parents explaining Franklin’s situation and her plans to continue teaching during her treatment while Franklin shared the news with students during her classes.

Once again, Hanby staff and parents responded with an outpouring of love and support.

“I can not express how thankful I was at being at Hanby, being in Ohio at this time. Because it’s just been a godsend.”

For Franklin, there was some familiarity for living with cancer and its treatment again. The medication. The physical toll. The energy loss.

Her focus, however, remained on her students and making sure they have experiences that will inspire them to lead healthy and active lives.

Since her first diagnosis, Franklin kicked-off a school-wide shoe tying competition for students after teachers noticed how they were struggling with the task.

She launched a Fitness Drumming Project with Hanby’s music teacher, where students could pound on the large vinyl stability balls with pool noodles as drum sticks — an activity where students can learn about steady beats while getting a workout at the same time.

She organized the Hanby Olympics, a school fundraiser where students spend part of the day playing games and activities. She introduced Hanby’s first first lacrosse unit last year thanks to a grant from USA Lacrosse, which provided a classroom set of equipment — worth up to $800.

And for months, she planned the combined field day for Hanby and Emerson students.

During the event, Franklin walked through the field, watching students exercising the skills they covered in class: climbing, running, tossing, throwing, catching and maneuvering through obstacles.

As teachers led their classes through the different activities, high school students and parents ran the stations. It was what Franklin had hoped — a community of people to support kids in their element.

Among the popular stations of the day: a game of Sharks and Minnows, where “minnows” ran from one field to the other without being tagged by a “shark.”

WSHS senior and volleyball player Lauryn Bowie patrolled the sidelines, watching kids running across the field to make sure they were following the rules and being safe. When she saw Franklin approaching, she headed her direction and wrapped her arms around her.

Franklin and her husband, Dave, coached Bowie for years when she was a member of Mintonette Sports Volleyball Club’s 16 Open Team. She had still coached when she first learned of her breast cancer diagnosis and she was as candid with the players as she was with her Hanby students.

Then Franklin showed up to her first practice without hair after chemotherapy treatment.

“She looked completely different,” she said. “It’s sad, but she’s still smiling. It’s the same old Alisa. If you didn’t know her, you wouldn’t know anything happened to her.”

“To see her, I knew she would be OK. It’s Alisa. She’s the strongest person I know. And seeing her go through it, it makes me so sad but I know she can handle it. She can handle it better than anyone.”

The two have kept in touch after the season ended, with Bowie reaching out to Franklin for advice about playing volleyball at the collegiate level. Franklin played volleyball at Lee University; Bowie will do the same at Virginia University this year.

“She always put the girls before herself,” Bowie said. “She’s very selfless.”

Bowie was all too familiar with cancer. Her mother faced it too when Bowie was in middle school.

“Seeing my mom go through that, seeing Alisa go through it — both such strong, powerful women — it makes me feel secure and confident in myself, seeing that they can go through hell and back and still be amazing.”

***

The fifth-graders from Findell’s class gathered in front of a large screen where Franklin queued a presentation she typically gives for her first lesson of the year. Pictures flashed across the screen of Franklin with her family, on vacation, playing volleyball, traveling — all glimpses of her life, her loves and her experiences.

She loves athletic shoes, she told them. And baking, especially during the holidays — a hobby she picked up from her late father. She talked about her summer traveling to Chicago and Milwaukee to catch baseball games.

After she shared details about herself, she dove into her rules and expectations, assigned their spot on the gym floor at the start of class moving forward and led them through their first warm up of the year.

Then, she organized students in teams for various relay races to get their heart rate up and build camaraderie.

Franklin spent the summer gradually building her stamina since her brain surgery, taking two-mile walks and swimming at the Westerville Recreation Center. Still, she is approaching the new school year with uncertainty.

"If you’ve gone through cancer, you ask yourself a lot of questions. ‘Is that a symptom of cancer? Is that a symptom of being sick? Are you just tired?’"

After her last diagnosis, Franklin learned she will have to live with cancer for the rest of her life. She and her family have accepted it as her new normal, knowing that it could go into remission and return.

But it hasn’t distracted her from what matters most: her students.

She mapped out a variety of activities to complement her lessons for the coming year: a miniature golf outing for third-graders, a field trip to the Columbus Clippers for fourth-graders and a visit to Nationwide Arena to learn about hockey for fifth-graders. She has the cardio drumming unit, shoe-tying competition and Hanby Olympics on her schedule and plans to bring back a popular activity she hasn’t done since the pandemic: letters to U.S. Olympic athletes ahead of the 2024 Winter Games in Paris.

There’s also a new game she wants to introduce that involves hanging a ball from a wire stretching across the gym’s two basketball hoops. The object of the game is to throw a ball to strike the hanging ball, moving it across the court until it hits a backboard.

“I don’t know what my health is going to be like. I want the kids to have as many experiences as they can. If I’m not here, I want the person here to have fun with them.”

This year, she wants to connect with all her students, to get to know them and have them learn about her.

And she hopes, whether through her lessons, activities or conversations, they understand that being active and healthy can take many forms. Even with cancer.