When Cathy Chiaramonte, a fourth-grade teacher at Eldersburg Elementary School, had a headache for three weeks in January, she though it was just a sinus problem.
Chiaramonte, 54, was diagnosed in February with glioblastoma multiforme after an episode at school in which she was rushed to the emergency room, she said. GBM is a fast-growing brain tumor, according to information from the American Cancer Society,
"When she had symptoms at school, we were obviously beside ourselves," said school nurse Cathy Kasper.
But Chiaramonte's colleagues and students know her for her strong-willed personality.
"We know she's a fighter and she will fight it," Kasper said.
To raise money for Chiaramonte and brain cancer research, the school is holding the first C2 Celtic Canter 5K and one-mile fun run, named for Chiaramonte's Irish roots, on May 16 beginning at 8:45 a.m. The race route begins and ends at the elementary school, located on Johnsville Road.
Money will help Chiaramonte with travel related to receiving clinical trials to treat the cancer as well as to the National Brain Tumor Society, an organization looking to find a cure for brain cancer, Kasper said.
The school expects at least 250 runners and more than 200 additional participants to attend a festival with games and activities. The event had raised roughly $2,000 as of March 31, Kasper said.
Kasper, a good friend of Chiaramonte, has coordinated the event with other teachers, including Brandy Hunt, Billy Kavalos, Lani Hrones, Tricia Mower and Danielle Centofanti, Kasper said. The school's PTA is sponsoring the event, she said.
GBM causes increased pressure in the brain, prompting symptoms such as headache, nausea, vomiting and drowsiness, according to the American Brain Tumor Association.
Depending on the location of the tumor, patients could experience memory or speech difficulties, weakness on one side of their body, visual changes, and memory or speech difficulties, according to the organization's website.
The tumors affect more men than women, the website says.
"It's very aggressive as far as I hear — it's very tenacious — much like myself," said Chiaramonte, who laughed while looking over at her daughter, Jessica.
According to the U.S. National Library of the National Institutes of Health, it is the most aggressive form of glioma brain tumors.
Chiaramonte said hearing the diagnosis was "surreal."
"You're hearing the words and you know what it is, but you don't believe it," Chiaramonte said.
There were no major changes that indicated anything was wrong before that day at school, though Chiaramonte said that in hindsight, "maybe there were some teeny things."
Since the diagnosis, Chiaramonte said she's been exercising more than ever, part of her physical therapy plan. She also goes to the doctor every day for radiation and chemotherapy treatments. After 60 days of treatment, she will have a one-month break before going back on chemo for 12 months, she said.
The treatment forced her to take a leave of absence from school, she said.
Kasper said the school told students that Chiaramonte had surgery, notifying parents of her condition. Parents had the choice of whether to tell their children about Chiaramonte's diagnosis, she said.
On March 31, Chiaramonte, who returned to school to be interviewed for this article, was met with hugs from two of her fourth-graders, Erin Willig and Alina Partch.
"I do miss the kids — I do miss talking with them," Chiaramonte said, whose face lit up when she saw her students.
A third-grader at the school, Katie Mattern, will donate her birthday gifts to raise money for the cause at her ninth-birthday party to be held April 12. She is asking that in lieu of gifts, her friends and family bring checks or cash to support the May 16 event.
"I do think it's important to do that because I want to help," Mattern said. "I want to donate money to support brain cancer research."
Chiaramonte said being diagnosed with cancer has taught her a few things that she will take back with her to the classroom.
"When I come back to teaching, I'll be much more patient and understanding," she said.
Even though it's been difficult, Chiaramonte said she feels lucky to have a strong support system behind her.
"You have no idea how good it feels to have people behind you," Chiaramonte said. "People have been so amazing here."
Chiaramonte said she feels support from students who send her letters as well as other members of the Eldersburg community.
"People know them because they've been here for so long," Kasper said.
Chiaramonte's husband, Ralph, has taught at Liberty High School for more than 30 years. The couple has two children, Jessica and Matthew.
She said it's easier to be diagnosed with the disease than to see a loved one experiencing it.
"I don't have to see it; I just plug through," she said.
If you go
What: C2 Celtic Canter 5K and one-mile fun run with a festival with games and activities for families
When: Race is held Saturday, May 16 at 8 a.m. Registration starts at 8 a.m. and the walk/run begins at 8:45 a.m.
Where: Eldersburg Elementary School, 1021 Johnsville Road
To register: Pre-registration for the 5K is guaranteed if the registration is postmarked by May 1. Refreshments and door prizes will be provided to 5K participants. Awards will be given for age groups and overall winners. Cost is $30 for the 5K, $10 for the one-mile fun run and $12 for a T-shirt. Register online at: imathlete.com. Mail registration with payment to Eldersburg Elementary C2 Celtic Canter, 1021 Johnsville Road, Eldersburg, MD 21784.
To donate: Companies may sponsor the event at levels ranging from $50 to $350. Checks can be made to Eldersburg Elementary PTA and mailed to the school's address or given to an event representative.