Editor’s note: This is the first part of an occasional series on Dianne Young, the Bolton High School yearbook sponsor who learned in April that she has a rare form of brain cancer.
Every now and then, Dianne Young looked back at some kids who were recently playing with toys in a children’s game section. She was having a hard time dealing with the noise while trying to carry on a somewhat impromptu conversation at the Barnes & Noble outside Wolfchase Galleria.
“Don’t they know?” asked Dianne, who looked at her friend, Kristen Kellum, sitting at the seat across from her.
It’s a common reaction these days, Kristen said. Dianne is distracted more often these days. The energetic, multitasking 45-year-old Bolton High School English teacher and yearbook sponsor used to be able to juggle the challenges in her life with ease.
“Some of it is her personality,” said Kristen. “Some of it is just Dianne. But some of it, I think, is the tumor.”
It’s a tumor that took everyone by surprise when Dianne first found out in April that she has Glioblastoma multiforme. With a median survival rate of just 4 1/2 months, it’s a rare and aggressive brain cancer that also comes with a harsh reality: fewer than 20 percent of those diagnosed live longer than three years.
“I don’t want to want to talk about it,” said Dianne, who looked down with glassy eyes during an interview that took place only a couple of hours after she had been at a radiation treatment. “It has a really grim prognosis. Really grim. But I believe in miracles.”
Now, the mother of two young children is learning how to live her life, looking at how she spends each day and trying to fight for as much time as she can before that prognosis becomes a reality.
“I’ve had to reprioritize about what is important,” said Dianne. “And that is, and should be, my family.
“And so in that way, it’s been a giant blessing to me about what is important in my life.”
Born in Corvallis, Mont., Dianne met her husband, Robert, in Wyoming while she was on the “long-term plan” for college education. He was from Memphis, and was out “trying to be a cowboy,” as she put it.
The cowboy part didn’t stick, and the two ended up moving to Memphis together. She finished her bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Memphis and then immediately went on to earn her Masters in Teaching. After brief stints with Memphis City Schools and Cordova, Dianne joined Bolton, where she has been since the district announced 12 years ago that it was looking for a yearbook sponsor.
The Youngs live in Rosemark, just a few miles from where she works, with their sons. Jake is 12. Justin, 10. They had two horses, but recently had to give up one because of the challenges of Dianne’s illness. They also have chickens, golden retrievers, kittens and a handful of renovation projects.
But the projects took a different course in April when Dianne got the news that her time on Earth might not be much longer. She’s had to make decisions on pretty much everything in her life, things that she used to take for granted.
“I could go 1,000 mph. I used to have 30 balls up in the air, do a million things at one time, and I’ve learned that is not necessary.
“What is necessary is God, and then my family,” said Dianne. “And then school.”
Kristen said leaving school last spring was one of the hardest parts for Dianne when she suddenly couldn’t work anymore. It happened fast.
On April 1, Dianne went in for an MRI. She’d been having headaches to the point that she had to leave work for the day or she’d become sick. She also had pain down her neck and one of her arms.
Even so, Dianne wasn’t alarmed. She’d had nerve problems with her back before and figured it was just those nerves acting up. Her doctor had suspected to find the nerve problems causing the symptoms, too.
Then the MRI tech saw something during the study. A few phone calls later, and Dianne was having a full MRI of her brain.
The report wasn’t good.
“She immediately sent me to the doctor,” said Dianne. “And he said I had at least three to four masses in the brain. And I needed to see a neurosurgeon.”
At the same time, Dianne was preparing to go to court on a traffic ticket. She had wrecked her car in February. The surgeon was on her way home from court, so on a whim, she took her MRI studies into him. He looked at them immediately and agreed with her doctor’s findings.
Within days, Dianne was having a brain biopsy. And in less than two weeks, she had met with an oncologist and was ordered to start radiation and chemotherapy.
“She was at school, and then she had to go and have the biopsy done,” said Kristen. “And it was a whirlwind from there.”
Looking back, Dianne is certain the first sign that something more serious than nerves and headaches was wrong when she wrecked her car. That day, a truck in front of her had stopped short, she said.
“I just couldn’t react in time. And I knew I was going to hit him. And then I hit him,” said Dianne. “There was no reason I should have hit him.”
Not driving has been one of the difficulties for Dianne to face. But she has more pressing issues: her husband’s current unemployment, her older son’s understanding that his mom might die and her younger son’s emotional issues with things with his mom not being quite right.
“My youngest son said, ‘I don’t want a bald mommy,” said Dianne.
She hasn’t lost all her hair yet. Instead, it’s thinned in patches. Ironically, fear of baldness was the first thing that made her cry.
“I wish I had gone bald,” said Dianne. “I had great hair. I had GREAT hair.”
Kristen, who often takes Dianne to her doctor’s appointments and helps watch her kids, said that, as a woman, she can understand how it must have felt when the realization of baldness first set in.
“I think it’s been one of the biggest challenges for her, because I think your hair is a symbolism of femininity, and beauty, and all the commercialization, and the products and such that are available for women,” she said.
The hair loss is just one of the challenges that’s becoming less of an issue for Dianne these days. Support from family, friends, service groups and the school are what gets her through. Friends such as Kristen, a fellow English teacher 13 years her junior who made a connection with Dianne a few years ago while Kristen was going through a divorce. Groups such as the Boy Scouts and Bolton National Honor society members, which have helped out around the house and the garden. Family such as her sisters, who flew in from Montana and Arizona in May, to help she and Robert get things organized.
Right now, all of them are waiting.
What comes next is anyone’s guess. Dianne had her last session of radiation near the end of June and will have another MRI scan early this month. The results of that scan will tell much about her future, especially what she can expect to experience during the next few months.
For now, Dianne tries to live without worrying about what those results might be.
“Nothing has been what I’ve expected, at all,” said Dianne. “I expected to be tired, I expected to be sick, I expected to lose all my hair. And none of it happened.
“And I have great hope.”
To be continued…