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On the mend: School board member Katy McElwee Stevens recovering from cancer surgery

Students at Newport Elementary School, where Katy McElwee Stevens works as a paraprofessional, wanted her to know they were thinking of her with a large get well card that she was given last week when she returned to school for a visit while still recovering from cancer surgery. Bulletin photo by Judy Spooner

It wasn't what she wanted to hear, but knowing that her father and aunt had colon cancer, it wasn't a surprise when a doctor told Katy McElwee Stevens that she had colon cancer.

During a colonoscopy a month ago, a tumor was discovered and was surgically removed on March 7. Appointed to the District 833 School Board in January, she missed a board meeting that night but board members paused at the end of the meeting to wish her well.

Her father was diagnosed when he was 72, but McElwee Stevens is 50.

"I guess I'm an over-achiever," she said in an interview last week when she returned for a visit to Newport Elementary School, where she works as a paraprofessional.

Before entering one of the fifth-grade classrooms where she works with students, Principal Aaron Krueger announced that they had a special visitor. I know you're anxious to see her but treat her gently, he said, urging students to withhold bear hugs.

Students gave her an over-sized card they made with construction paper and she thanked them all. They hugged her and tried to be gentle as they were told.

"I miss them terribly," she said.

But she hasn't been out of touch. Daily, pictures and notes are arriving by email. "I know what you guys have been up to," she told them.

McElwee Stevens, whom people know as outgoing with a ready smile for everyone she meets, said she was happy to be back at school even if it was just for a visit.

But even with a positive attitude, there have been times in the last month when she felt anxious and wondered about the future.

In the hospital, after all her visitors had left one night, she was alone with her thoughts. She heard an alarm from one of rooms that signals to the staff that a patient's heart has stopped. "I knew what it meant," she said.

She picked up her phone and scrolled to her Facebook page where she found at least 50 messages telling her she was in their prayers and wishing her well.

"Then, I was ready to fight again," she said.

Reading about colon cancer online and talking to her sister, a pharmacist, has helped, McElwee Stevens said.

This week, she'll face another challenge when she'll see an oncologist to discuss what's ahead. One of the questions will be whether she'll need chemotherapy.

If the doctor recommends it, she'll "get on with it," she said. "If I have a choice between crying and laughing, I'd rather be laughing."

Meanwhile she's still hearing from friends, high school classmates and relatives.

"I heard from cousins I haven't seen in years," she said. "I don't know how I can begin to thank people."

Judy Spooner
Judy Spooner is the longest-serving staff writer at the South Washington County Bulletin. Spooner, who covers education and features in addition to writing a weekly column, has been with the newspaper for over 30 years.
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