Lellio back in classroom after second battle with cancer

Ayla, 3, is her greatest motivation


photo courtesy of Maralee Lellio

English teacher Maralee Lellio snuggles her daughter, Ayla, 3.

River Lowery, Reporter

English teacher Maralee Lellio has returned to her classroom this semester after a battle with brain cancer, which involved undergoing surgery and radiation treatments in the late summer and fall.

“What I don’t understand is why so much of funding for breast cancer research, over 90% of it, goes towards treating earlier stages, when 30% of people treated at earlier stages will end up with terminal cancer anyway. So why not treat the terminal cancer so that nobody’s in danger anymore. So that’s kind of one of the things that I’d like people more aware of is that once it’s stage four, it’s no longer curable but if we would research and fund it better then maybe it would be and we wouldn’t have cancer deaths.””

— English teacher Maralee Lellio

She was diagnosed with this second bout of cancer in August, not long before school started.

In the midst of getting treatment for her brain tumor, she said there were a lot of times when she could not do things she wanted to do, like spending time with her daughter, Ayla. One of the challenges she missed most was “playing with her a lot cause I couldn’t, I just didn’t have the energy,” she said. “I wasn’t able to walk for a while. I couldn’t get up if I was sitting down, and I couldn’t get up if I was on the floor… I missed so many bedtimes.” 

While Lellio struggled over missing time with Ayla, she said her daughter was her motivation to get better. “She’s 3, she needs me,” Lellio said. “She can’t understand why I’m not well. She didn’t understand why she spent, like, almost two months away from me in the fall; she had no idea. She was just about 3 and a half at the time, and she deserves a mom.”

Lellio still struggles with effects of the tumor months later.

Because of the treatment and the tumor itself, she has a lot of trouble with her memory. “I can’t remember the month of September, so I missed an entire month of my life. I don’t remember my birthday…” 

She also said her cognitive processing and fatigue are both big struggles for her day to day. “The medication makes me very fatigued and sometimes cognitive processing is a little bit more difficult, probably from the medication, also from the cancer itself,” she explained. “And just some physical things like… you know, I get arthritis from the medication, which I shouldn’t have yet… and things like that.”

Lellio said she had a very difficult time transitioning from being at home sick to coming back into school in January but was happy to get back to “normal.”

“It’s been great,” she said. “You know just with quarantine and everything I couldn’t go anywhere, so coming here and seeing my teaching friends and interacting with students has been really nice getting back to some semblance of normal.”

Some students struggled while Lellio was undergoing treatment for breast cancer in 2018-2019. 

Junior Caitlin Wegener said, “It was much more difficult to concentrate with substitutes because I was much more used to Mrs. Lellio’s ways of teaching.” 

But Wegener, of course, understood why Lellio could not be in school every day, and she was glad to have a caring teacher like her.

“She always helped me whenever I needed, even with everything she was going through, and her class was definitely one of my favorites,” Wegener said.

Everyone close to her was worried, and just hoped she would get better. Senior Sam Gray said, “My immediate reaction upon hearing of Mrs. Lellio’s returned illness was concerned for her and for her daughter Ayla.” 

Lellio’s friend and colleague, intervention specialist Blythe Dallet, said, “All I wanted to do was offer some sort of comfort. But how does a person comfort someone they care about who has just found out they have a life-threatening illness?”

Even though it was hard for Lellio and for loved ones to see her going through treatment and the whole process of recovery, the experience taught many people involved to be stronger and more grateful for what they have.

“…It made me realize how much of a strong person she was, and I know this is cliche, but as long as you keep on fighting and never give up, you can do great things,” Wegener said. She also learned, “that there is always someone that cares about you even if you don’t realize it.”

Dallet said she learned how to better support people who are ill. “Something I have learned about supporting a friend/loved one who has cancer is not to say: ‘You’ve got this’ or ‘Keep fighting.’ These typical phrases that most people tend to use towards others who have cancer aren’t always the most supportive way to encourage someone with cancer.…The message we want to send these individuals is that it’s OK not to be OK. It’s OK to feel fatigued, overwhelmed and sick of being sick.” 

Gray said he learned more about perseverance and how to be more thankful about what you have. “I remember being confused when she would tell me how thankful she is during her illness. I couldn’t understand why she wasn’t pitying herself and how she was able to see any kind of silver lining in her circumstance. She tackled her illness with the strength and kindness that she carries with her every day. Seeing her persevere could stand as a lesson for all of us with the importance of being grateful for the important things in our life while we have them.”