Last January, Nick Sakellaris, a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher at Irving Elementary, was diagnosed with a recurrence of his cancer. Students responded by shaving their heads to show solidarity with him, wearing red “Team Sak” bracelets, hiking to his house to raise money to fight Hodgkin’s disease, and sending him cards when he was in the hospital.
Eight months later, “Mr. Sak” is back in the classroom, teaching his combined class of fourth- and fifth-graders full-time.
It wasn’t easy getting back to school, though. Sakellaris spent 29 days in isolation at Rush Hospital while undergoing high-dosage chemotherapy and the slow renewal of his blood cells. Keeping hope alive was difficult because he had battled cancer once before, in 2003.
“It wasn’t easier the second time around,” he said. “You can’t be negative.”
But the treatment has a 90 percent cure rate, so “there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Sakellaris says. By early July, his cancer had gone into remission. And there was an upside to having experience with cancer: He found it easier the second time to get used to the inactivity the disease brings.
Support from friends and family helped him get through it all, too.
“My family was pretty unbelievable,” he said. In the hospital, he watched movies and checked his e-mail on the laptop computer that the Irving community had given to him. He read Mafia books, followed the ongoing Mafia trial in Chicago, and got into the Cubs.
His students were there for him, too. One did a research project on Hodgkin’s, and many hiked from Irving to his house as part of the Hike for Hodgkin’s, which was organized by another Irving teacher, Stacy Kanavos. Altogether, between the hike and the bracelets, the Irving community raised about $5,000 for Hodgkin’s research, according to former Irving PTO president Ron Martin.
Martin’s son, Evan Rhodes-Martin, was a fifth-grader in Mr. Sak’s class last year and is now at Julian Middle School. He and a friend shaved their heads, and kept them shaved for a month. In addition, he wore his “Team Sak” bracelet every day at the same time, 8 to 10 a.m., the first two hours of school.
Rhodes-Martin said the Hike for Hodgkin’s was especially important to him because he got to see Mr. Sakellaris again. It meant a lot to his teacher, too.
“That day was one of the most special days of my life,” Mr. Sak wrote in a letter to the Irving community. Even though he’s at Julian, it feels good, Rhodes-Martin says, to know Mr. Sak is doing well.
Sakellaris is feeling good, too. He’s so excited to be back at school he didn’t sleep much the night before the first day of school. Since he’s been back, students have been stopping by to give him hugs.
“It’s a special feeling to know you’re really missed,” he says.