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Centennial teacher balances cancer diagnosis, class

Centennial teacher balances cancer diagnosis, class
(Brian Krista, Baltimore Sun Media Group)

For the next seven months, Nan Collins hopes her art and Spanish classes at Centennial High School can return to normal. Thus far, they've been anything but for the veteran educator.

Collins, 58, was diagnosed with breast cancer in late August and has missed about five weeks of school to undergo treatment.

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While she has stayed in touch with some students and her substitutes throughout her absence, Collins returned to Centennial Nov. 5 – something she thought would be the "best medicine" she could get.

"It's good therapy for me," she said. "I don't want to be sitting around thinking about myself all day. That wouldn't be a good experience."

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Collins was informed by her doctors during an appointment after the third day of school that she had an early stage of breast cancer. Despite telling her students shortly thereafter that she would be missing time, she continued to teach at Centennial for three weeks so her students and substitutes would be prepared for lessons during her time away.

"Her level of expectations for kids never changed," Centennial Principal Claire Hafets said. "She put the students first."

Students in Collins' Art 3 class – comprised of juniors and seniors – said her return last week was emotional, but added it didn't take long for Collins to get back to teaching.

"Everyone gave her a hug and she told us her schedule, but then she went right back to teaching," said senior Alex Booth. "It was like she never left."

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Collins has taught in Howard County schools for the past 26 years, including her time at Centennial and five years at Atholton High School before that.

Collins said no one in her family has had breast cancer. Her doctors told her that her form of breast cancer is not genetic.

"You feel like you've been punched in the stomach," she said of her reaction when her doctor informed her she had breast cancer.

Given an encouraging prognosis, Collins said she is thankful.

"I can't imagine what it's like to face a more serious prognosis," she said.

Collins underwent her first surgery Oct. 1 and said she's now doing well and has enough energy for four days of classes each week.

Collins expects to miss every Friday for the next three to four months for chemotherapy at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore. As long as she's feeling up for it, she'll be teaching four days a week.

Throughout the past two months, Collins raved about the support she received from friends, family and colleagues from Centennial, which includes a dining room full of flowers and emails and cards from parents and students.

Collins specifically mentioned her subsititutes Marti Wensel and Charlie Wehr along with her Centennial art colleagues Mark Hanssen and Jo Tulkoff as those who have helped her during the time out of class.

"It couldn't be better," she said of the support she's been given.

In the weeks before she returned to Centennial, Collins joked that she may not remember the names of some new students, but said she was more concerned with not being prepared each week to teach her students due to time missed for treatment.

"The more normal I appear and the more normal the classroom is, the better for them," she said. "They also have struggles in their lives and school needs to be a place where they escape those troubles."

Collins' students describe her as passionate and supportive yet strict in her classroom.

Junior Audrey Schlimm said Collins had a positive attitude throughout the first week of school, telling her class not to worry about her.

When she returned to class last week, Collins had the same attitude.

"She just came back as strong as ever," Schlimm said.

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