Cancer wasn’t even a thought in their minds.

When a father and physical education teacher started losing weight and feeling drained, he thought he had the flu or allergies.

When a 3-year-old boy became pale, his parents thought he just hadn’t been playing outside as much as usual.

But as their symptoms grew worse, both families knew something wasn’t right, and the diagnosis was cancer.

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The stories of teacher Steve Imel and Will Hendel, now a 7-year-old first-grader, inspired the students at SS. Francis & Clare Catholic School to donate about $2,000 to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and made cancer more real to them.

After knowing that two people from the parish were fighting cancer, the school administration decided to use their stories as a learning opportunities for students. Imel and Will were named school heroes for battling cancer and being an example to the students on how cancer affects someone.

Each month, students work on a faith in action project. For February, the students raised money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Students put on a talent show and passed out pledge cards to parents to raise money. One day, students wore their clothes backward to “turn their back” on cancer. More than 14,500 prayers have been pledged for Will and Imel’s continued recovery, parish communications coordinator Andrea Barber said.

“You don’t get this at any other school,” Imel said. “I’ve never seen anything like it. A lot of my friends have been thoroughly bowled over by what they’ve done.”

Both Imel and Will spoke to the school about their cancers. Imel was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma over Labor Day weekend; while doctors found acute lymphoblastic leukemia in Will’s blood stream about four years ago. Both recently finished chemotherapy.

Finding a cause

For Will, the treatments lasted for almost three years. He has been in remission since October; and instead of skipping school every Friday to get chemotherapy, he is able to go to school full time like his classmates.

Will’s family never considered cancer was the culprit when he was diagnosed at age 3. He had become very pale, but his mother, Janet Hendel, thought he hadn’t been outside playing as much as normal. But then he started sleeping in until 10 a.m. — four or five hours later than usual. Once Will became disinterested in activities that he used to love, like planting flowers with his grandmother, his mother took him to the hospital.

Dozens of tests were run without an answer. After spending a day and night in the hospital, doctors suggested they transfer Will to Riley Hospital for Children at Indiana University Health for one last test. They wanted to clear Will of any chance of having cancer, they said. Janet Hendel, who was in the middle of moving their family to a new house at the time, thought it seemed like an overreaction.

But after that one more test, Will was diagnosed with leukemia, and doctors said his parents needed to make a decision within a few hours on the boy’s treatment.

“This was completely out of the blue for us,” she said. “He has to be treated now or else he dies.”

Weighing options

Janet Hendel was told that the common treatment for leukemia included both chemotherapy and radiation, but radiation on a 3-year-old’s brain would hurt her child — even though it would save his life, she said.

“You are asking me to cripple my child,” Janet said to the doctors. “You’re asking for permission to harm him.”

The family decided against radiation. But in order to do so, the chemotherapy had to be more aggressive. Instead of the traditional routine of one day of chemotherapy followed by four or six weeks of rest, Will had to get chemotherapy done once a week for 151 straight weeks.

To this day, Will is the only patient to go this route in the hospital’s history, Janet Hendel said.

The port where chemotherapy medicine was fed into Will’s body was removed in October; and when the wound healed, Will felt back to normal again.

“He had a scab where the port used to be, and the scab fell off, and he said, ‘Wow, it came off. I’m finally back to myself now.’ That was a huge deal for him,” Janet Hendel said.

Imel finished chemotherapy at the end of last year but has radiation treatments this month.

Imel was losing weight and feeling drained of energy, but initially he thought it was allergies or the flu. He wasn’t sleeping well, so maybe he had sleep apnea. It wasn’t until he collapsed on his bathroom floor over Labor Day weekend that he went to the doctor.

“I’ll never forget the doctor’s (reaction). She was so bubbly and friendly when I first came in; and when she came back after looking at the X-rays, she was stone serious,” Imel said.

“She said, ‘You’re going to need to go to IU West to get some more tests done. We’ve already gone ahead and sent over your paperwork electronically.’ I said, ‘Let me check my schedule,’ and she said ‘No, you need to go now.’”

Making issues relevant

Doctors drained more than two quarts of liquid from his lungs, where his tumor was. The tumor was so large that it had pushed his heart to the left side of his body instead of resting in the center of his chest.

He’s been off work since September to receive chemotherapy and radiation treatments. The chemotherapy made him groggy, and he had to take a nap after two or three hours of being away on some days.

“I still have bouts where it’ll just hit me, and I need to lay down. As soon as I lay down, I’m out,” Imel said.

Now, he is able to pick up his 4-year-old daughter Lucia from preschool and do light chores around the house like vacuuming.

But Imel already is looking forward to this spring, when he’ll have another chest scan and could go back to teaching. When Imel visited the school a few weeks ago, the No. 1 question students asked was: When are you coming back?

Every time students see their long-term substitute in gym class instead of Imel, it makes cancer more of a concrete issue, instead of an abstract concept for students to understand, Principal Betty Popp said.

For students to see Will every day in class, they are able to make a connection to allow them to say, “I know someone who has been directly affected by cancer,” she said.

In the past, school administration discussed other topics for students to learn more about, such as foster care, medical issues in developing countries and autism awareness, Popp said.

The different topics are aimed to make illnesses and global issues relevant, using examples from people the students know, Popp said.