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Breast Cancer is not a Death Sentence


Connie was recently the “6th Man” for the UC Women’s Basketball team’s annual Shoot for the Cure. Before the game the team honored her courage and her battle.

WILLIAMSBURG, Ky. — “To end this on a very positive note, my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes are beginning to make a comeback!! This makes me very happy.” This is the positive tone that Connie Howard sets when talking about her experience with breast cancer. In an email sent to friends and co-workers at University of the Cumberlands (UC), Connie describes her treatment in a way that is comforting to everyone, no surprise at all coming from a woman who has dedicated her life to teaching folks how to cope with death and dying.

Connie has been a health professor at UC for more than 30 years, focusing much of her teaching on death and dying. Her students call her one of the most effective, dedicated and passionate teachers they’ve ever had, and this was shown in 2009 when she was honored in Washington D.C. and named Death Educator of the Year. Her extensive research and experience in the health and death studies has made her better prepared than some may be when faced with the incredible test of cancer.

In April 2011, doctors discovered that she had HER 2 NU breast cancer, a highly aggressive type of cancer that is best treated through early detection. According to Connie’s doctor, if her cancer had been discovered even 3 months later than it was (which is when her yearly mammogram was scheduled), the end result of her cancer could have been her death. As it turns out, she is now on a positive road to recovery.

“It was Divine Intervention,” Connie says assuredly about the early detection.

A lumpectomy was performed to remove the cancer cells in Connie’s breast, and she then completed 16 chemotherapy treatments. After a 3 week break, she recently started radiation treatments, and will have one a day, five days a week for seven weeks.

Throughout all of the rigorous treatment, Connie has continued teaching classes at UC, although her extracurricular activities, such as hiking and leading grief support groups, have ceased—but only for now.

“I’m going to hike the Appalachian Trail,” Connie states, when asked what she will do when her treatment is complete.

This positive outlook on life is no surprise to those who know her. One of her former students, and current colleague at the University, Jennifer Wake-Floyd, remembers Connie’s effectiveness in the classroom.

“In class, she made everything okay,” says Jennifer. “Her attitude and outlook on life made the subject [of death] bearable.”

Recent graduate Josh Hallock had Connie for three classes.

“She genuinely cares about her students,” Josh says, emphatically. “She gave us the tools to succeed in class, but also in life.”

UC alum Bo Kidd agrees. “It didn’t matter what she was teaching, she was passionate about it. She wanted us to be able to learn and utilize the information.”

Through her training, work as an EMT and work with grieving individuals, Connie’s teaching is that much more meaningful.

“You could live through her stories,” says Jennifer, who graduated in 1997. “I still vividly remember some of her lectures. Her real-life experiences make her a wonderful teacher.”

Connie has been at UC since she was 17, when she came to study health and physical education. She graduated in 1974, from what was then Cumberland College, and one year later completed an M.S. in recreation at Eastern Kentucky University. Connie returned to Cumberlands to teach, and has continued to educate herself in health and bereavement studies, sharing her knowledge passionately with UC students.

This passion is not reserved strictly for University of the Cumberlands. Before cancer treatment took up most of her time, she spent her extra hours outside of work teaching community members about death and dying. She has led various support groups, including support groups for grieving parents and women’s Bible studies. She is ready to get back to it, although advocating for breast cancer awareness may become a big part of that.

She admonishes women to “be aware of cancer signs, be educated, especially with skin cancers, and go to the doctor if you are suspicious about anything.”

Through her experience with cancer, Connie’s positive attitude has never changed, but some of her habits have. Because of that, she is doing what she does best—sharing those with others.

“I am much more aware of the small things,” she says. “I have dropped a lot of worries about insignificant things—I embrace every minute that I have.”

Words that are not surprising, coming from an educator such as herself. But while she is helping everyone else cope with death and dying, and comforting her friends and family with her positive attitude, what does she actually think about her cancer?

“Oh, I’m going to be fine,” she says with assurance, daring anyone to believe differently.

Located in Williamsburg, KY, University of the Cumberlands is an institution of regional distinction, which currently offers four undergraduate degrees in more than 40 major fields of student; nine pre-professional programs; seven graduate degrees, including a doctorate and six master's degrees; certifications in education; and online programs.