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Corrie Freeman and her nephew, Andrew Freeman, who she said was her greatest support
system, have proved that love can help conquer the most challenging situations.
Photo by Sherrie Norris

Originally published: 2014-06-09 12:48:37
Last modified: 2014-06-10 09:49:10

Family, friends, faith and cancer with a purpose

by Sherrie Norris

Through her recent cancer journey -- and even before and after -- Corrie Freeman has publicly proclaimed her faith in God and credits him for her healing. A Spruce Pine native and graduate of Appalachian State University, Freeman has taught fourth-grade at Hardin Park Elementary School in Boone for 16 years and is "mother" to her 12-year-old nephew, Andrew.

She teaches Sunday school at Mount Vernon Baptist Church and allows her faith to serve as an example to those around her.  

"Having cancer introduced me to a face of Christ that I had never seen before," Freeman said.

"My walk with Christ was strong, but I learned to really trust God -- and that he truly wanted what was best for my life. I also felt, from the beginning of my diagnosis, that my cancer had a purpose. I learned that God is more able than I ever could have imagined and that he is still in control.

"Freeman shared her story at Tuesday's Relay For Life Cancer Survivor's Dinner and Celebration at Greenway Baptist Church.

Diagnosis revealed

With "unusual stomach pain," Freeman said, she was diagnosed in May 2013 with endometrial cancer. She had a radical hysterectomy in June, followed by six rounds of chemotherapy and 25 days of radiation therapy.Among vast notes of encouragement and support that began pouring in was an article called "The things cancer can't do." The article challenged her, she said, to look for things that cancer can do.

Cancer can make you more resilient than you ever knew possible.

"I battled through a lot of the unknown to get to my diagnosis," Freeman said. She knew that although she wasn't in charge of what was going on, she was handling it. "Each bump in the road, each bend and turn often presented its own challenges, but my faith and my support team helped me stand firm," she said. "My experiences with cancer made me a fighter. I look back now and see it not as a battle, but as a victory."

Cancer can be part of your story.

"I am proud that cancer is part of my story," Freeman said. "When asked if I had the opportunity to erase the cancer from my life, would I -- the answer is no. Cancer has made me more compassionate, more faithful in my walk with Christ, more understanding of heartache and more thankful for the life I have been given."

Cancer can be beautiful.

"If I told you that losing my hair was easy, I would be lying," Freeman said. "Having no eyelashes and barely any eyebrows wasn't fun. But what I can tell you is that after years of telling my students that beauty is from within, I experienced it firsthand."

She was hesitant on the first day of school to tell her students about her cancer. 

"I was told, 'Ms. Freeman, I don't care if you have cancer or if you don't have any hair, I just wanted you to be my teacher,'" she said. That's a beautiful memory, she said. 

Hardin Park's guidance counselor Claire Jensen helped prepare Freeman for the day she unveiled her bald head to her students. "It was, and is still, one of the most profound moments of my teaching career," she said. "I realized, in that moment, that they didn't see me bald. They saw me for who I was." 

Cancer can teach you to be loved.

As a single independent 37-year-old, Freeman did not want pity, sympathy, to feel helpless or stares at the grocery store, but she learned a lot, she said. "You have to allow people to love on you -- to mow your yard and cook your meals if they want to, to visit and comfort you. It made my life so much richer," she said.

Cancer can bring new friends.

Freeman remembers arriving at Presbyterian Oncology Center in Charlotte and telling her mother she didn't want to go in. "Going in meant I was really a cancer patient and there was no turning back," she said. "But I'm glad I went in. I had an amazing oncologist and my treatment team became friends for life. Seeing them every three weeks soon became more of a treat than treatment. They actually made chemo fun for me," she said.  The same is true, she said, for her radiation nurses and her doctor, Yvonne Mack, at Seby B. Jones Cancer Center in Boone. "Each one touched a part of my heart I didn't know existed," Freeman said. "They listened to my fears, my tears and my questions -- and celebrated with me when I was done. God certainly calls special people to work with cancer patients." Cancer can help you connect with other patients and survivors.

Forming relationships with other cancer patients was profound, she said. 

"I email weekly with the 72-year old lady who had chemotherapy with me every week," she said. "I was very blessed with getting to know a former cancer patient from my hometown who was diagnosed at my same age."

She also corresponds with four other newly diagnosed women she learned about through friends. 

"The joy I have found in paying it forward with others  -- as many did with me -- gives me a beautiful feeling inside," she said.

Cancer can make you laugh.

During her first chemo treatment, Freeman was aware of possible reactions to the drugs entering her body; she said she was surprised after using the restroom that first day, suddenly feeling her "rear end on fire." 

She was mad, she said, knowing that calling the nurse would slow down treatment, but she did it. 

"After she came over, asked me to describe my symptoms, and checked my temperature, it was getting worse," Freeman said. "I was uncomfortable, so I stood up. It was then that we discovered that I had accidentally turned on my chair's seat warmer." 

Cancer can teach you about friendship.

On a warm July night, Freeman sat in a hotel bathroom as her best friend cut her thinning hair.  "That moment will always stick out to me as the truest kind of friendship" she said. "The trust, love, hope, sorrow and sadness was deafening."

Her friends stuck with her every step of the way, she said, "feeling my sorrows and celebrating my victories each step of the way." 

Cancer has made her a better friend, too, she said.

Cancer can make your family stronger.

Andrew was "hands down," she said, the strongest person for her during her cancer journey. 

"At 11, not only did he have to endure the fear and worry of cancer, he was also balancing being a middle schooler, playing several sports and learning how to handle preadolescence," she said. "He never wavered from my side, never gave up hope and was my strongest supporter and ally. Battling cancer together has made our relationship stronger than ever. I am so thankful that God blessed me with him."

Cancer can strengthen your faith.

Freeman's faith sustained her when she was weak and encouraged her when she was doubtful. 

"My faith guided me when I felt lost and gave me hope and direction," she said. 

Among her favorite "cancer-fighting scriptures," she said, include the following: 
Isaiah 46:4: "I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you." 

Isaiah 46:4: "I have made you and I will carry you; I will sustain you and I will rescue you."

Deuteronomy 31:6 "... Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you."
Looking back and moving on.

When her local physician, Beverly Womack, referred her to the gynecological oncologist in Charlotte, Freeman remembers tearfully asking to have her radiation treatments in Boone -- so she could continue to teach. 

She was delighted, she said, to learn that most of her care could be administered at the Boone cancer center.

Determined to start her 16th year with her fourth-graders, Freeman had a goal to teach them that cancer doesn't have to be scary.

"I knew there would be questions, like when my hair began to fall out," she said, "but I promised myself from the beginning that if God would allow me to continue to teach, I would continue to pour out his love for others."

And she did so by leading her students in numerous community projects that helped them see that small acts of kindness can make a big difference. 

Near Christmas, they assembled and delivered gift buckets packed with holiday goodies and encouraging messages to patients at the cancer center.

Later, in "the love bus," she took her students around town, delivering cookies, candies, gift cards and various items --sometimes leaving them anonymously -- to be found in random places "like gas cards taped to gas tanks," she said.  The fact that her students rallied around her and wanted to help others, especially those battling cancer and others who may just need a helping hand, had a huge impact on her own Christmas healing miracle, Freeman said. "I am so thankful for the love and support of my students who are more like family," she said.

On Oct. 30, 2013, she watched her students release 25 balloons into the air -- one for each day of her radiation. 

It was a day she will never forget.

And, she never missed a day of school while fighting cancer.

"I am proud to say that I am currently cancer free," Freeman said. 

In addition to being loved and admired by her students, their families and her peers, Freeman received her National Board Certification in 2005, was named Hardin Park Teacher of the Year in 2006 and WATA Teacher of the Month, December 2013.