Meet Green Bay's 'Lemonade Club'
Book helps St. Bernard School librarian share her breast cancer battle with students
By Sam Lucero
|LEMONDADE CLUB: St. Bernard School students and faculty gather around librarian Julie Lani, seated in rocking chair, on May 7. Lani, who recently completed chemotherapy in her fight against breast cancer, used the book "The Lemonade Club" to help students journey with her on her recovery. A banner in the background was created by Lani's daughter, Jacqui. (Sam Lucero photo)
GREEN BAY -- As the librarian at St. Bernard School, Julie Lani enjoys reading and sharing books with students. This school year, while Lani was battling breast cancer, she and her students found solace in one of her library books, "The Lemonade Club."
Written by Patricia Polacco, The Lemonade Club is about a teacher, Miss Wichelman, and her fifth-grade class. When one of her students, Marilyn, is diagnosed with leukemia, Miss Wichelman's employs one of her favorite credos, "When life hands you lemons, you make lemonade."
The students and Miss Wichelman rally behind Marilyn, and when she begins to wear a hat to cover her bald head, made that way from chemotherapy, they shave their heads and wear hats.
As she recovers, Marilyn's hair grows back, but the students learn their teacher, whose hair is still not growing, suffers from breast cancer. In the end, Miss Wichelman recovers and the students attend her wedding.
According to Lani, the book presents a positive message about offering support for friends and brings the subject of cancer out in the open. She said it was just the right remedy to help St. Bernard students understand her situation.
Lani's ordeal began last summer after a routine mammogram.
"My results came back clean and I was good to go," she said. "But I had felt that something wasn't quite right."
Lani said she felt a pain in one of her breasts and thought it was possibly caused by the mammogram procedure. When she returned to her doctor for a school physical, she mentioned the condition.
"I had her take a look and she didn't see or feel anything," said Lani. However, her doctor sent Lani to a specialist. "They did an ultrasound and couldn't see anything," she said. Still concerned, Lani's doctor scheduled a biopsy, which revealed stage one breast cancer. Although it was detected early, Lani said it was an aggressive form of cancer and needed radical treatment.
"I had my double mastectomy on Oct. 23 and started chemo Dec. 3," she said. "I had six treatments and finished chemo the Monday after Easter." Throughout the ordeal, Lani missed less than three weeks of school.
Meanwhile, the parish and school offered prayers for their librarian. She's also been buoyed by her family, husband Brian, son Chris, 24, and daughter Jacqui, 20.
"One of the days I was home recovering from surgery, the entire school wore pink," said Lani. "The support from the families of the kids, the teachers, the parishioners - I don't think I could have done that without them ... because it's extremely scary.
"Some of the kids, they just didn't really understand it. They kind of watched the journey," she continued. "They watched Mrs. Lani moving kind of slow and all of a sudden she has a hat on or a scarf and now they can start to see my hair coming back. So they are just part of this journey."
She invited them to journey with her through The Lemonade Club.
While undergoing chemotherapy, Lani began a series of gatherings with students.
During the meetings she would read - or at least begin reading, before her emotions forced another faculty member to take over - The Lemonade Club to students. Later in the year, when Lani regained some of her strength, she hosted lemonade parties with the students. Many wore scarves and hats to show solidarity with Lani.
"We just called it the Lemonade Club because it really is about support and rallying around people when they are sick and making lemonade out of lemons," she said.
The interaction allowed students to ask questions and, for some, experience cancer for the first time.
"If I've done anything for the little kids, maybe I've taken a little bit of the fear out of this because you can function in chemo," she said. "If you catch your cancer early and it's not invading your entire body, it's doable. It doesn't have to be a scary thing for children."
Lani said that faith has been a big part of the journey.
"Faith and support and prayers from all these people are what's gotten me through this whole journey," she said. "I don't know what people do if they don't have their faith. Where do they go to at night when they're laying in bed in their own thoughts, totally panicked? Where do they go with that? Because that's where you have a test of faith - when you're alone in your own thoughts. It's not when you're in school with a lot of distractions."
The distractions for Lani have been humorous and touching.
For example, one day, shortly after she was diagnosed with cancer, eighth grader Cole Brockman came to the library to cheer her up. "He had pink Post-It notes covering his entire body, with little ribbons drawn on them," she recalled.
"It's been the eighth grade boys, it's been the older kids that have been so supportive and very protective of me and my feelings, making sure that I didn't lift anything heavy. Just like little sons," she said. "They just didn't want anything to happen to me."
As for teachers and parents, it's been the realization that cancer can strike anyone at any time.
"I think a lot of the general feeling in the building was, if cancer can happen to Mrs. Lani, it can happen to anyone," she said. "I was 46 when I was diagnosed. I was healthy. I think I surprised a lot of people and I shocked a lot of people. I know personally that I've had at least five women go to the doctor and get mammograms that normally wouldn't have because I rattled them; and two of them were diagnosed with cancer."
Lani sees this unpredictable outcome of her cancer as another lemonade moment.
"I think maybe this is my purpose. I don't believe things just happen," she said. "I believe they happen for a reason and maybe I'm just a vehicle to help someone else."
While the prognosis is positive, Lani's journey to a cancer-free life continues.
She's receiving a treatment - Herceptin - that eliminates a protein that fed her cancer. "After that, I will go on Tamoxifen, which is a pill form, to go after the estrogen part of the cancer. I will be on that for five years," she said. "So I have a journey ahead of me yet, but the worst part of it is over."
Through her journey, Lani said she's learned important lessons - about cancer and about life.
"There's no cure for cancer, but if you catch it early it's treatable," she said. That is why she strongly encourages women to have yearly breast examinations. "Early detection makes all difference in the world."
The life lesson, she said, is about humility.
"It's not about cancer, it's just about what you do with it," she said. "I can't control what happens to me, but I can sure control what I'll do with what happens to me - how I will live each day, how I will embrace each day."
Lani said this positive approach is a byproduct of the lemonade theory.
"I think I've done a good job of that, just trying to stay positive and live each day; get through it and look for the good in everything that happens to you," she said.