Shawnee breast cancer survivor nears 5 years since beating cancer

By Kelci McKendrick
Rhonda Ellard

Some days, good or bad, just stick in your mind, like the day a child is born or the day a loved one dies, for instance. For Rhonda Ellard of Shawnee, one of those days is the day she found out she had breast cancer.

Oct. 29, 2015. That day always makes Ellard a little nervous. Really, the whole month of October can be stressful for her.

“The month of October scares me to death,” Ellard said. “My heart sinks going (into the hospital) because this is the month, and it really is difficult.”

October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, the month Ellard found out she had breast cancer.

Back in July 2015, Ellard, then 57 and a fifth grade teacher at Cross Timbers Elementary School in Tecumseh, was supposed to go in for a routine mammogram. For one reason or another, it was rescheduled for September 2015, and lucky for Ellard it had been.

“My doctor said, ‘It may have been God taking care of you that way,’ because … we may not have been able to see it in July,” she said.

Ellard then got an ultrasound test and a biopsy, and after running the tests, Ellard’s doctor gave her the diagnosis — she had stage 1 breast cancer.

Ellard and her husband Brett told their son, who lives in Kentucky, over the phone, and she told her family, friends and coworkers what was going on soon after.

For a while, Ellard couldn’t say the word “cancer” out loud. It hadn’t really hit her that she had breast cancer.

She missed a few days of school every couple of weeks for tests and her lumpectomy surgery to remove the 1.87 centimeter lump from her breast. Cross Timbers was actually getting ready for its “pink week” when she found out she had cancer.

She gathered her fifth graders and told them they needed to have a little conversation. Since the word “cancer” wouldn’t come out, she told her students her body had some bad cells that needed to be taken out.

“One little girl … came up to me, and she goes, ‘Mrs. Ellard, do you have cancer?’ And I said, ‘I do,’” Ellard said. “Those were probably the hardest words to say — ‘I have cancer.’”

That’s what made it real for her — looking her students in the eyes and telling them her diagnosis. 

For a couple of weeks, Ellard was waiting by the phone to see if she needed to receive chemotherapy or not.

The phone call came in November, and Ellard was at lunch during school when she received the news that she didn’t need chemo. She celebrated a little bit that day.

Though she didn’t need chemo, Ellard still needed radiation treatments. Chemotherapy delivers drugs to the entire body while radiation targets a specific area of the body with cancerous cells, according to Advent Health.

Her radiation treatments began in January 2016, and since she had her treatments at the Cancer Center in Shawnee, she only had to leave school 30 minutes early.

“Radiation made me tired,” Ellard said. “I was very thankful that my treatment was at the end of the day because I would go home and after that, I usually would take a nap. I would eat dinner, and then I’d go to bed because I had to have enough energy to handle the 24 kids that are in my class.”

Back in the early 1980s, Ellard’s husband’s father died from cancer. Because of this, Ellard actually took out a cancer policy with American Fidelity, so her finances weren’t too impacted by her breast cancer.

Brett also helped Ellard with a lot of the finances, telling her he would take care of it and file claims so she wouldn’t have to worry about it.

“That cancer policy was a real lifesaver,” Ellard said. “I think if Brett hadn’t known what to do with all of those, I probably would’ve been sitting here writing checks.”

Ellard’s spirit and faith never wavered once during this six-month period of tests, surgery and treatments. She leaned on her family, friends, people from church, her coworkers and God throughout her journey.

As she was undergoing treatments, Ellard had a “secret pal” at Cross Timbers — one of her fellow fifth grade teachers. Since she needed to drink a lot of water before heading to the cancer center, her “secret pal” bought Ellard bottled water to help support her during treatment.

Ellard kept all the bottles of water, and when she hits five years of being cancer free in March, they’re going to have a water drinking party to celebrate.

One beacon of light that shone through was in January 2016 when Ellard’s son announced he and his wife were going to have a baby.

Ellard’s granddaughter was born later that year, and that’s what made Ellard decide to retire from teaching early. Her goal before had been to make it to 40 years teaching, but cancer and mainly the birth of her granddaughter changed those plans.

“Cancer makes you look at life a little differently — take time to smell the roses, so to speak,” Ellard said, “but it was more of my grandbaby that changed (my plans).”

Ellard, now 61, makes frequent visits to Kentucky to see her granddaughter as often as she can, and she now works at AIM Academy of Oklahoma, which provides supplemental courses for home-schooled children in grades first through eighth, according to its Facebook page.

For 35 days, Ellard went through radiation treatments, and on March 9, 2016, she was told she was cancer-free. She invited her students, all with matching shirts with Rosie the Riveter on the front and said “I got your back,” on the back, to be there with her as she rang the bell, sounding out that she was now a survivor.

“I went from shock and dismay to excitement,” Ellard said about her feelings from when she received her diagnosis to beating cancer. “I left (the Cancer Center), hugged all of my kids … went home and I just cried of happiness and thankfulness.”

She’s now nearing five years since the day she got her diagnosis, and in five months, it’ll be five years since she beat cancer.

Some days, good or bad, just stick. For Ellard, one triumphant day that sticks is March 9, 2015 — the day she became a breast cancer survivor.