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Clovis teacher's students rally to give her 'year of a lifetime' as she battles cancer

Fresno Bee logoFresno Bee 4/5/2019 By Carmen George, The Fresno Bee
Bud Rank Elementary 6th grader Emma O'Neil, center right, talks with her teacher Allison Vargas, who leads her students to P.E. on Monday afternoon, March 25, 2019. Vargas is battling colon cancer and will leave the school Friday for a leave of absence to spend more time with her 1 1/2-year-old daughter and husband. Her students have set up a GoFundMe account to help her with expenses. © John Walker Bud Rank Elementary 6th grader Emma O'Neil, center right, talks with her teacher Allison Vargas, who leads her students to P.E. on Monday afternoon, March 25, 2019. Vargas is battling colon cancer and will leave the school Friday for a leave of absence to spend more time with her 1 1/2-year-old daughter and husband. Her students have set up a GoFundMe account to help her with expenses.

CLOVIS, Calif. - Allison Vargas jokes on a recent spring day that her classroom has transformed into a garden because of all the vases of flowers.

The flowers followed a tough announcement recently, when Vargas told her sixth-grade class at Bud Rank Elementary School in Clovis that Friday, March 29 would be her last day in the classroom. She has stage 4 colon cancer and is taking a leave of absence to spend more time with her young daughter, 1 1/2-year-old Everly.

"It's a hard thing to talk to 11- and 12-year-olds about. ... they get it; they understand it," Vargas said, "but how delicately can you put it?"

The 33-year-old has three large tumors - one 10- to 12-inches long, and the others about the size of a softball and a golf ball - that aren't shrinking.

"I hope you really understand that it's not that I don't want to spend my time with you," she told her class, "it's that I think it's really important that I spend that time with my daughter."

Bud Rank Elementary sixth-grade teacher Allison Vargas in her classroom Monday, March 25, 2019. © John Walker Bud Rank Elementary sixth-grade teacher Allison Vargas in her classroom Monday, March 25, 2019.

Her students responded with a lot of compassion. Beyond bouquets of flowers, they made a GoFundMe donation account online titled "Mrs. Vargas' Year of a Lifetime."

"We are all devastated that our teacher has to go," her students wrote, "but we really want to help our teacher have the best year ever with her daughter and husband. We are hoping to raise enough money so that they can go to Disneyland, Gilroy Gardens, Universal Studios, Hawaii, Washington DC, Ruth's Chris, Chuck E. Cheese's, John's Incredible Pizza, Disney World, and anywhere else they want to go!

"They have a lot of medical expenses, and we are hoping to raise 'fun' money. ... We all love her so much and want her daughter to have amazing memories with her mommy."

SICK LEAVE NEEDED

As Vargas' students rally to bring her fun time, her fellow teachers have been donating sick leave so she can keep her medical insurance and some income. Vargas said that if she receives another 38 hours of sick leave, a little more than five work days, that will hold her over until the end of the school year in early June, and enable her to keep her insurance through the summer.

Clovis Unified School District employees can donate sick leave by contacting the district's human resources department.

If Vargas runs out of donated time, she'd be eligible to receive medical insurance through her husband, Jose Vargas, a band teacher at Clovis North High School and Granite Ridge Intermediate School. There are a lot of unknowns and concerns about the future.

"When you've got like three or four doctors appointments a week and you're looking at co-pays, it adds up so quickly," Vargas said, "and if there's any ER visits or surgeries or any hospital stays, that skyrockets."

Vargas is also considering going out-of-state for medical care, to a hospital in Texas that has a center for colon cancer.

Earlier this month, she received a big helping hand from the Fresno chapter of Helping One Woman, which organized two fundraiser dinners on her behalf that raised about $16,000.

The GoFundMe account started by her students had raised more than $8,000 as of Tuesday, March 26.

When asked if there is anything else people can do to help, Vargas talked about supporting others through Helping One Woman, including another Clovis Unified teacher now on leave from teaching, Kellie Beaty, because of brain cancer.

Vargas described the generosity she's received as overwhelming and more than she could have ever imagined. She said she sometimes feels mentally isolated in her illness, but everyone has become her "army" and "they are picking me up."

"They are there for us all the time."

UNEXPECTED CANCER DIAGNOSIS

The petite 33-year-old with golden-colored hair and a warm smile doesn't look sick although she's on her 12th round of chemotherapy treatments.

The dosages started in June when she was diagnosed with cancer.

She now takes chemotherapy pills twice a day, in the morning and evening.

Vargas said doctors in Fresno told her that her tumors are too large to be removed via surgery.

Doctors found them in April, when she went to the hospital for abdominal pain. She noticed the pain the previous year while pregnant with her daughter, but thought at that time the pain was caused by her pregnancy.

She said her tumors have been stable but there's a mutation preventing them from shrinking and her cancer from going away. Her doctor informed her that "if we don't get it under control within the year, then the chances of survival aren't extremely high," Vargas recalled.

She recently asked her doctor if he thought she should keep working.

"If I was you, I would stay home and be with your daughter and make memories that way," Vargas recalled him saying, "which was a big pill to swallow."

Vargas had returned to teaching in January.

"Those hours with the kids have been huge for me, just to forget that I'm sick and feel like a normal person again. And, obviously, you make these connections with the kids in a short amount of time and you build these relationships - that's what's been really hard about choosing to leave," Vargas said tearfully. "It's not the reason why you want to go out."

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