School celebrates kindergarten teacher who beat breast cancer

Holly Birmingham, 37, signs a message on the Guardians of the Ribbon South Texas Chapter's pink fire truck. Birmingham, a breast cancer survivor, was honored Friday at William Wood Elementary School, where she is a kindergarten teacher.
  • FOR HER OWN KIDS

    Birmingham said after her diagnosis, she learned to cherish little moments with her children, Karli, 10 and Cody, 7.

    "As a mom, you get busy, and I think it's made me think 'oh no, I ...

  • SHOW ALL »
  • FOR HER OWN KIDS

    Birmingham said after her diagnosis, she learned to cherish little moments with her children, Karli, 10 and Cody, 7.

    "As a mom, you get busy, and I think it's made me think 'oh no, I need to take those special moments. I don't want to miss those moments' ... I realize they're more important to me now."

    When Karli was assigned to write about the person she most admired, she, of course, chose her mother.

    Here's what she wrote:

    "I admire her because she's the kindest person I know. Not only is she the kindest person, but she's the strongest person I know. She was diagnosed with cancer in 2010 and was still strong for me and my brother, Cody. No matter how bad she felt or if she was weak, she was always there. While she was going through her cancer, my mom and dad got a divorce, which was really hard on us. I think about her everyday. These are the reasons I admire my mom the most."

Holding a bouquet of pink roses and in the arms of a firefighter in a pink suit, Holly Birmingham was overwhelmed to tears.

They were the first tears dozens of kids, wiggling on the ground in a wave of pink shirts, would see from the kindergarten teacher at William Wood Elementary School.

Despite being diagnosed with breast cancer in January 2010; despite aggressive chemotherapy and surgery to remove a lump and her lymph nodes; despite losing her hair, rushing to radiation treatments after school and raising two kids on her own, Birmingham, 37, was nothing more than a fun kindergarten teacher when she was at school.

"It felt like when I got in this room, my focus was so much on them that I could forget everything else. It was almost a healing thing for me," Birmingham said, sitting at a kindergarten-sized table Friday afternoon.

Birmingham's last treatment was on the first day of school in August 2010. By this August, the teacher with now darker hair got the word she was all clear of cancer.

The entire school, donned in pink, celebrated Birmingham's victory Friday with a visit from the Guardians of the Ribbon South Texas Chapter and their pink fire truck.

Birmingham, tears in her eyes, signed near the middle of the truck, "Always stay positive and lean on God."

Those were the two elements that got her through her battle with breast cancer, a divorce on top of it, and made her able to shield her kids, both at home and at work.

Then, there were her colleagues, who banded together to donate to Birmingham their paid days off. The stage 2 cancer survivor, whose breast cancer had spread to her lymph nodes, only missed 30 days of class throughout the ordeal.

"I didn't want them to think things were not right and not normal," she said.

That's why Birmingham always wore a wig and explained away any of the markings she had from her radiation treatments.

The students knew Friday they were wearing pink to honor breast cancer survivors and victims, but when it came to their own teacher, students didn't hint at any of the behind-the-scenes anxiety Birmingham worked so hard to protect them from.

"She taught us all the letters of the alphabet," Julian Salazar, 7, said.

"She was pretty," Emily Quinn, 7, said.

"She was just the nicest teacher I ever met," Landan Adian, 8, said.

The now second-graders were all in Birmingham's class the year she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sickness never once tainted her duties, her strength as a kindergarten teacher.

Quite the contrary, according to 7-year-old Reed Kallus.

"She always comforted all of us," he said.